Shift North 2018 reports and presentations

Star Wars. Sperm Whale. Paddington Bear: Three phrases harming journalism

Newsworks' Executive Chair Tracy De Groose spoke at IAB's Digital Trust Forum about the unintended consequences blocklists are having on journalism.

You can read her full speech here:

Good morning.  

In all my career I never thought I’d start a speech with an intro from Peppa Pig.  

So, why the reference to a cartoon pig?    

Well as odd as it might sound “Peppa Pig” is currently on a blocklist for a large entertainment brand. What that means is no advertising by said advertising brand can appear next to the iconic TV character that is Peppa.  



It’s hard to tell – there has been some suggestion that Peppa has gone all gansta on us! 

Now, I should say upfront that I am not here to shoot down blocklists (I couldn’t use that phrase anyway) or content verification technology.  

They certainly have an important role to play.  

I am here, however, to talk you about the unintended consequences blocklists are having on journalism. 

Why is journalism being harmed?   

In attempt to keep things simple the platforms treated all content as being the same, with a focus on impressions. 

Regulated editorially governed journalism is being bundled together with the increasingly “wild west” of unregulated content, and then sold to advertisers as one amorphous mass. 

The alarm bells started ringing when advertisers saw their ads popping up in some surprising places. At this point the murmurs around context started. 

In this current digital model, there is little attention to the quality of the content or the provenance of that content.  

There is no distinction between crafted journalism – that adheres to ethical standards, editorial codes, regulators and the law – and bedroom bloggers, amateur producers and at the extreme end, criminal content.  

Today these murmurs have become much bigger challenges and we are all talking about why context matters with regards to brand safety, trust, effectiveness and return on investment. And more ethically, for all of us to think about what content our ad investment is funding. The commander for counter terrorism made that very clear to us all at the ISBA conference last year.  

Not all content is the same.  

In fact, I would argue we need to consciously uncouple editorial content from all the unregulated content.  



Journalism, by its very nature is word heavy. Our business model is words, storytelling across a broad range of titles and topics to 44million people each week.  

The impact of blocklists is much more significant on us because journalists will always want to have the freedom to use the right words to tell their stories regardless of the consequences of ad revenue. And shouldn’t we all want to keep it that way. 


A free press sits at the heart of our democracy. 

In fact, it was The Times brand safety expose in 2017 that highlighted how programmatic technology was unwittingly funding terrorism, supremacism and pornography.  

And this led us to the proliferation and widespread use of blocklists.    

The problem with this sudden knee-jerk reaction was that we reduced a complicated issue like brand safety to the lowest common denominator.  

Advertisers created extensive blocklists, so did agencies, content verification companies and publishers.  

You may believe longer and longer lists, that now go well up into thousands of words, equals greater rigour.  

But I am not sure this is the reality. 


Firstly, because it has all become incredibly time-consuming and complicated. 

The lists are not updated frequently enough meaning words aren’t taken down when they should be. At this rate journalists will run out of words they can use.    

Secondly, it’s also ruling out the right sort of content for advertisers where innocent phrases and words are getting impacted by the black and white approach of blocklists. 

Therefore, safe content is being redefined as not safe. Because the context of these words and phrases has been lost. 

And it’s a very real issue. 

A recent report by The Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, which was covered by the Guardian on Monday, reckons UK publishers missed out on an estimated £170million pounds last year due to ad blocking.  

That’s about one in every five pounds of ad revenue lost, at a time when journalism is needed more now than ever. 

For the faint hearted please cover your ears now. I’m about to say some highly inappropriate words. As the title to my talk alludes Sperm Whale, Star Wars and Paddington Bear are all victims of blocklists.  


And we have a serious problem with the world of Westminster.  

Despite politics leading the news agenda last year – you know Boris, Brexit and the general election – one publisher told me advertising yields were disappointingly low given it was the topic shaping the nation’s conversations and delivering record audiences and record levels of engagement.  

Blocklists – with the best of intentions – don’t consider the delicate nuances. 

The team over at Reach found that many sports stories were being erroneously blocked. Words like “strip” and “shoot” were stopping ads from appearing against entirely safe articles. 

Additionally, articles about “Manchester” were also being routinely blocked due to the 2017 Manchester arena terrorism attack. 

Too often quality content environments and context are ignored. Content verification systems are being unwittingly misused or misunderstood. 

And safe quality journalism is missing out. 

Some news sites are seeing up to 60% block rates. 

Why should brands care? 

Because the unintended consequence of block listing is that digital journalistic environments, which provide huge reach, highly engaged audiences and rich contextual relevance are being mistakenly overlooked by advertisers.   

News online is in danger of becoming a barren brand wasteland because of crude blocking mechanisms designed to fix a much wider problem - the broken, wild web.  

Quality journalism is being penalised. Storytelling is being strangulated. And an important pillar of our democracy is being compromised. 


And advertisers are arguably losing out on effectiveness according to our neuro-based research.  

People spend 45 seconds with ads in hard news versus 32 seconds with soft news. Both are significantly higher than the industry’s online viewability standard - at least 50% of an ad must be in view for a minimum of 1 second.  

But of course, we know advertising in news environments works.   


In the “olden days”, choices on where to advertise were made on some fundamental principles. With the advent of digital some of those fundamentals appear to have been lost, dismantled or discarded altogether.  

I sat on a panel last year with Mark Evans from Direct Line where we discussed the lost art of media planning. 

In an era where there is a plethora of choice to reach consumers, it seems that “where” you advertise has been demoted.  

Throughout my career as a marketer “where” in news mattered. In the case of Boddingtons it was outside back covers. And Stella Artois alongside film content in newspapers and online.   

Where matters?  


The news brand context gets you noticed. And remembered.  

Lumen eye tracking research shows that ads in news environments are 80% more likely to be viewed when compared to the longtail. 

And relevance is 50% higher when ads are viewed on quality sites. 

Our research with Group M also revealed that seeing an ad in a quality environment is 42% more cost effective versus an ad placed in the open market. 

I’m not here to sell news but to highlight the importance of context. And it’s importance of advertising effectiveness and ROI.  

We need to be more considered, intelligent and thoughtful in how our brand safety tools can and should evolve. Blunt tools are having significant, unintended consequences.  

To the tune of 170 million quid according to The Merrick report.   

I am pleased to say that today’s White Paper published by the Content Verification Working Group – an industry-wide response – is a serious step in the right direction.   

It is the first consistent, standardised and joined-up approach that will help to mitigate the negative impact on publishers while retaining safeguards for brands.   

Reach, who launched an AI driven brand safety platform last year, is seeing a 40% uplift in stories cleared for advertising that would have otherwise been blocked. With more publishers looking to use the platform this can only be good news for the industry. 

And, editors themselves are now red flagging online editorial that they don’t feel is appropriate for advertising. As an industry we are taking the issues very seriously.   

But we need to speed up the progress.  


Journalism matters. 

In a world of fake news, misinformation and propaganda, trusted journalism matters more now than ever before. 

Record audiences – that have grown by 10% over the last ten years – are relying on news brands for the analysis, news and information they can trust. 

31 million people a day trust news to represent them. To inform. To entertain. To campaign. To raise the issues that matter. To hold power to account. 


So, isn’t it time we all challenged the impact blunt tools are having on quality journalism and stop the slippery slide into some sort of advertising-induced censorship of the free press?     

Thank you. 


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