News Corp’s Robert Thomson on fake news: ‘We’ve gone from Mad Men to mad metrics’

Ad agencies should be held accountable for their role in perpetuating fake news through programmatic ad buying, Robert Thomson, CEO of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp said.

Fake news has been around for years in different forms, but it’s soared in prominence lately as many blamed it for swaying the presidential election with false or misleading articles about the candidates that spread widely on Facebook. These sites are propped up by the programmatic advertising system, where advertisers buy space based on defined audience targets rather than buying directly from a given website, which can result in ads winding up in places that the advertiser didn’t intend.

Thomson, speaking today at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference, was careful to direct his comments toward ad agencies, not advertisers, continuing a theme of critical comments he’s made about ad agencies wasting money through automated ad buying by running ads on low-quality sites.

“They make money on fake news,” he said. “Often advertisers will be aggregating audiences. They’re serving ads to audiences they have demographically defined … Ad agencies should also be responsible for the audiences that they’ve created and what they’re serving those audiences and how they’re serving the clients. We’ve gone from the era of Mad Men to mad metrics.”

One of the rare news publications that has a robust online subscription business, the Journal has been tightening up its online paywall with the goal of growing subscriptions as ad revenue becomes harder to come by. Thomson also said he’d like to think the fake news scandal will be a big opportunity for sites like the Journal because it will “renew focus on premium news and news you have to pay for.”

Continuing on the subject of the Journal, he said the goal is to bring in new subscribers without discounting, which he said has become easier with improved software. “The aim is to bring in as many people as we can and then upsell.”

While the mainstream news media has been criticized for missing the undercurrents among voters that led to Donald Trump’s victory, Thomson also expressed optimism for News Corp’s book publishing business, pointing to this year’s success of the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” from HarperCollins, a News Corp business, as evidence that the company understands the broader market.

“We’re not elitist. We are able to tap into the mass market whereas others are not.”

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