Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Media executives are ramping up the public pressure on companies to invest in advertising against quality news.

Between the lines: It's one of the biggest complaints news publishers have privately mentioned to Axios over the past year.

  • While the the Trump presidency was at first seen as a boon to news companies, media executives now call it a growing liability to their ad businesses.

Why it matters: News content can be tricky for advertisers to navigate, but media executives argue that it's possible — and beneficial — for advertisers to figure out how to engage quality news with their dollars.

  • Group Nine CEO Ben Lerer told Axios on stage at AdExchanger's Industry preview conference last week: "I just think right now we have such a divided country that — I just think that a lot of big brands are incredibly cowardly and want to, sort of, upset no one and actually they are doing themselves a massive disservice ... in the long-term."
  • Pam Wasserstein, President of Vox Media, told Axios on stage at the same event. ""Part of our position in the world (as a news company) is that we are at the center of a cultural conversation ... Being part of that conversation with an urgent, differentiated voice is what helps connect audiences and what helps ultimately advertisers be relevant."
  • Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti told Axios at a conference in California last year while unveiling his plan to "unbreak the internet" that more pressure needs to be put on advertisers to pull their dollars from toxic content. "You see again and again the platforms will take action when brands put pressure on them."
  • Vice Media executives called out brands directly at its "newfront" digital media event for advertisers last year for using blacklists to discriminate against words like "pregnant," "Jewish" and "gay."

The big picture: For years, advertisers have used blacklists, or a list of words that appear in stories that they refuse to run ads around, to stop their ads from ending up next to incendiary content.

  • Those blacklists caused U.S. publishers to lose $2.8 billion in revenue in 2019, according to a study from Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore in the U.S. and ad tech company. CHEQ
  • Just 9 of the most 100 most-read news articles from 2019 were considered brand safe by keywords blacklists, per the study.
  • Often many words are blocked in fear of one meaning, but then are misapplied. For example, words like "attack" are often included in blacklists, even it it pertains to something positive, like an "attack wing" in soccer.

Yes, but: Some advertisers still see news as one of the few content areas that can engage certain audiences, particularly opinion leaders and high-end consumers.

  • “News is an environment where we find the audience that we want to engage," Lou Paskalis, the SVP of Customer Engagement and Investment at Bank of America told me last October at the Twitter News Summit.
  • "Thirty cents of every dollar I spend in digital is in news. So it's an absolutely vital advertising platform.”

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