Like most online publishers, the New York Times is fighting an ongoing guerrilla war against ad blocking, a phenomenon that a recent study said could lead to more than $35 billion in losses for media companies by 2020. NYT chief executive Mark Thompson now says he is even considering what amounts to a nuclear option: Banning users with ad blockers completely.
Thompson talked about the newspaper's plans at a special symposium convened by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, called the "Ad Blocking and User Experience Summit." Despite the friendly-sounding name, it was clear from much of the discussion at the conference that publishers and advertisers alike believe they are at war, and they are prepared to pull out the big guns.
Although Thompson said the paper is "not there yet," he said the Times is ready and willing to cut off non-subscribers who refuse to add the newspaper to a white list in their ad blocking software. "No one who refuses to contribute to the creation of high quality journalism has the right to consume it," he said in his keynote address.
The Times may see its battle against ad blocking as a kind of holy war in defense of high-quality journalism, but the readers it is fighting against see it very differently. A glimpse of that tension can be seen in the thousands of comments that Reddit users—many of them Times readers and subscribers—have left on a thread about the news organization's plans.
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"We do not refuse to contribute, we refuse to lose privacy and security from malicious ads," said one user. Another said that publishers have "ruined their chance of advertising to us by being obnoxious and dangerous and we fought back by actively removing their ads from our experience. They can't do anything to make the average user go back to not using adblock now." Another remarked that the ad blocking phenomenon is "a grave that [publishers] dug themselves."
In his keynote, Thompson admitted that publishers and media companies have created much of the ad blocking problem themselves through the use of intrusive and annoying ads. But despite the newspaper's successful paywall, the Times CEO said it will always rely on advertising. "We do not believe that we will ever be able to sustain Times journalism or The New York Times as a flourishing business without an advertising business of real scale," he said.
Thompson told the IAB conference that the Times has been experimenting with two different kinds of ad blocking messages to users, one that allows them to dismiss the pop-up and continue reading the site for free, and another that can't be dismissed.
About 30% of those who got the dismissible kind of pop-up message added the Times to a white-list in their ad blocking software, the New York Times CEO said, and about 40% of those who got the non-dismissible kind did so. That means if the newspaper decided to go with the nuclear option of banning all users with ad blockers, 60% or more of those users would go away, which would have a direct impact on the traffic numbers advertisers look at.
In addition to those hostile options, Thompson told the IAB that the Times is considering offering its subscribers a more expensive tier that would remove ads from the site, a response to criticism from some subscribers who complain about being subjected to ads even though they already pay for the paper. But could the Times earn enough from these higher subscriptions to make up for the loss of advertising revenue? That's the multimillion-dollar question.