For the past five years, a small startup called Ad Fontes Media has been categorizing publications based on their bias and allowing advertisers to buy ads with its data. The aim is to restore a common truth in society by moving money to publications that may not agree, but at least don’t deny their opponents’ existence.
Advertisers, until recently, have had some limitations with the stories they’ve been able to buy via Ad Fontes, which has labeled each piece of content by hand, but a new AI model is changing that. The company’s using the approximately 70,000 pieces of content it’s labeled with panels of right, left and center-leaning raters to build a model that can categorize tens of thousands of articles each day. The result might reopen news to advertisers who’ve opted out of the format completely.
“We have the largest set of labeled data for this in the world,” Ad Fontes CEO Vanessa Otero told me this week. “So we can now score articles at scale for reliability and bias and it’s quite accurate compared to our own human ratings.”
Advertisers have all but abandoned news, slashing their newspaper spending by 80% since 2005 and largely avoiding news sites. The spending purge began as news moved online and started competing with every other website. But a push toward “brand safety,” where any slightly controversial story lands on a blocklist, finished it off.
Brand safety began as a sensible idea, keeping advertisers away from beheading videos and other disturbing content, but it expanded into cowardice. As its scope crept, advertisers made news stories about politics, health and social issues off limits. And when they pulled away, newsrooms collapsed and partisans responsible to nothing but their own interests took over the discussion. Our shared sense of reality dissolved.
The evolution of news bears some responsibility for advertiser skittishness. The category has sprawled online, and the edges have turned nasty, making brands feel uncomfortable running ads on websites that use news as a cover for advocacy and attacks. By narrowing down the level of bias, Ad Fontes hopes to entice these brands back.
“High quality investigative reporting is expensive,” Otero said. “So if you have enough brands pulling away from that kind of content, you see this degradation in our media landscape where good journalism suffers, and garbage out there thrives. So that’s what we’re really trying to change in the ecosystem.”
This doesn’t mean that Ad Fontes supports only established publications, suffocating those who’d challenge the status quo. It also rates upstarts, including news startup the Messenger, which falls on the more centrist area of its chart. But the work still remains such a political challenge that advertisers are reticent to publicize their participation.
“I’m not going to mention any [advertiser] names without prior express permission,” Otero said. “Because when it comes to things like political bias and how ad brands make decisions about where they advertise, as you can imagine, some are a little sensitive.”
Still, Ad Fontes data is now available in the automated ad buying tools that advertisers use to buy ads across the internet. And as its AI model evolves, it’s going to offer even more scale, which should bring in more dollars. In a society where people struggle to speak to those with different political values, the company has an outside shot at funding news sites that would restore the basis upon which we disagree. It’s a shot worth taking.
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