Gannett falsely accuses the Journal of smear in report on ad-tech screw-up

They say Indianapolis is lovely in the summer. Photo (cc) 2009 by Willy Feng.

By Dan Kennedy

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a glitch in Gannett’s online advertising software had resulted in ads appearing in the wrong places. For instance, to cite an actual example, an ad that was intended for USA Today’s national online audience might instead appear on the website of the Indianapolis Star.

So how did Gannett respond? With a defensive press release that falsely claimed the Journal story “implies Gannett intentionally shared inaccurate information to advertisers over a period of nine months.”

No, it didn’t. You can read the full Journal story, by Patience Haggin, for yourself, but this seems relevant: “Gannett said in a statement that it provided the wrong information and that it regrets the error, which it said was unintentional.” There is not one sentence in Haggin’s article contradicting Gannett’s claim that the error was inadvertent. Of course, the mistake might have been related to the fact that Gannett’s workforce is notoriously overworked and underpaid, but the Journal article didn’t say that, either.

What the story does confirm is that no one knows what is going on in the murky world of programmatic advertising, where digital ad space is sold through automated auctions by Google and, in this case, Gannett. It’s not at all like buying a two-column, six-inch ad on page seven in your local print newspaper. As Braedon Vickers, the ad-industry researcher who discovered the error, told the Journal, “Programmatic advertising relies on a lot of data being self-reported by those selling the ads. That this issue went undetected for so long suggests that the processes in place to verify this information are not sufficient.”

Writing in the trade journal Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck observed that Gannett’s “value proposition and trust” were undermined by the error. But she also quoted Krzysztof Franaszek, the founder of Adalytics Research, who said it appeared exceedingly unlikely that Gannett’s deceptive practices were intentional:

I think it’s likely a simple ad ops error. We tried to analyze this phenomenon from a number of different angles to determine if there was some kind of material benefit to Gannett of doing this, and after an exhaustive enumeration of possibilities, we found no rational explanation of how this would benefit Gannett.

Among the brands affected by the screw-up, according to Vicker, were Nike, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks and Marriott. Gannett’s statement said the error involved less than $10 million in advertising.

Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, owning 100 or so daily newspapers and many hundreds of other media properties in 46 states. The company controls a good share of the local news outlets in Greater Boston and environs — including a number of weekly papers that have gone digital-only in the past year, and which recently dumped community coverage from most of its non-daily titles.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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