Why the Bangor Daily News “ad frame” is bad for you, and what to do about it

Links should be free- and users are worth more than a few cents each. Why “ad frames” are bad business for news.

My local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has made some admirable improvements to its otherwise lackluster website over the past few months. To their credit, they’ve slowly integrated topic and people-based cross-links throughout their site, created “topic-centric” destination sections on health, sports, and politics, and appear to be slowly migrating their site from a vertical platform CMS to the world-class WordPress CMS.

An example of the ad frame used on the Bangor Daily News website (click image for full view)

 

Want an easy way to remove the BDN’s “ad frame” bar?

Firefox and Chrome users, install this Greasemonkey script I made. It will load the links to the sites as they intended, cutting out the BDN’s ad frame.

Install Zap BDN Frames

Firefox users need Greasemonkey first

All the goodwill engendered by those steps threatens to be undone with their most unethical and annoying update: A persistent top frame that sticks you with a BDN-hosted ad — even when you’ve clicked off their site to visit other links. (Here’s an example of the “ad frame” in action– what you’d see after clicking a link from the BDN website). Worse, the BDN ad frame give users no way to remove the frame- a feature that even the universally-derided “Diggbar” offered before being shut down due to overwhelming criticism.

This is the kind of selfish, pageview-grabbing trickery that creates mistrust with people who except they are using the open web, diminishes the value of pageviews (and thus revenues) to advertisers and publishers alike, and tricks readers into staying within a site when they think they’re exiting. This behavior is beyond simply annoying- it is unethical because it undermines the single most intrinsic tenet of the web: the concept that websites can and should cross-link to other sites for the purpose of connecting dots- not making an extra few cents.

You might dismiss this complaint as one that doesn’t affect “regular” web users- but I strongly disagree. In fact, I think this type of slight is aimed directly at people who don’t know the technical trickery at work to misdirect them. A pro user might be wise enough to simply edit the BDN’s sloppy URL, but most people are simply- and rightly- interested in surfing the web, and sites who hold that trust have a high standard to treat users’ freedom with respect, and earn their visits by delivering good content- not by holding them hostage with an IFRAME tag.

It’s become tired conventional wisdom that many news organizations are slowly and sometimes clumsily adapting to the changing of their business model in the face of the web, and I’m don’t want to rehash that story here. I’ll only add that if news organizations expect to stem the steady tide of readers away from their pages, they should work hard to find creative ways to bring value to readers, and avoid deceptive methods to peel precious cents away from the declining segment of people who support them.

Addendum: After contacting the BDN to express my dismay at this policy during the previous election season, and asking another newspaper its opinion on the matter (they essentially dismissed my concerns), it’s clear to me that as of now the current BDN leadership has no plans to revise this policy.

In light of that, I wrote up a quick script to disable this “ad frame” on my own browsers. If you’re like me, and you want to continue using the BDN website but don’t want to support this behavior, please contact the BDN to share your opinion.

In the meantime, if you use Firefox or Chrome as your web browser, you can download this free Greasemonkey extension I made called Zap BDN Frames. It simply removes the BDN’s ad frame and takes you directly to the linked site.

Want to read more?

Subscribe to my occasional newsletter! I'll let you know when I have neat things to share - just enter your email address.

I won't spam you, and of course you can unsubscribe at any time!

  • http://www.bangordailynews.com William P. Davis, online editor, BDN

    Jason,
    Thanks for your comments.

    I can tell you that, as a journalist, we don’t necessarily love ads. But I can also tell you it’s not cheap to maintain and build the most popular site in the state. It’s even more expensive to actually populate that site with content — the BDN employees more than 50 full-time journalists. It’s more than ‘a few extra cents,’ it’s the logical solution to avoid putting all our content behind a paywall — which I think would be pretty unpopular. While ads are sometimes annoying and unsightly, they allow you to get the news you and millions of others in and out of the state want without actually having to pay for it.

    While you see the frame as degrading your viewing experience, others see it as a positive — when you click a link, you usually don’t expect to leave that site.

    I’ll add that you are the only person to complain to us about these ads, including those we link to. We ask most of them first, and you should remember that it benefits their bottom line as well.

    The bar will certainly evolve over time, but for now it will probably stay as-is.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Why the Bangor Daily News “ad frame” is bad for you, and what to do about it | Jason Clarke -- Topsy.com()

  • http://dsmacleod.com Dan MacLeod

    (Disclosure: I used to string for the BDN and I was an intern there the summer of 2009.)

    Good points, but I’m with Will on this one. While the bar is kind of tricky and somewhat inelegant, I don’t see it as being unethical. They’re still driving traffic to other sites — they’ve just found a way to monetize outbound links. As Will said, beyond charging users for content, there aren’t a whole lot of options.

    Their idea drove you to find an innovative way to get around the bar. If a bunch of people dislike it, they’ll get their news elsewhere and the BDN will be forced to find a new solution to fund the kind of journalism no one else can afford to do. That’s the Internet.

    — Dan

  • http://jasonclarke.org Jason

    Dan, thanks for writing. While you’re making disclosures, I’d also add that you and Will are both co-founders (your own words) of an online newspaper, MaineObserver.net. I’d count that as a far more relevant disclosure than you stringing for the BDN during college.

    I’m truly sorry to hear both you and Will- ostensibly the next generation behind the Slates, Salons, and blogs from my era- espousing the notion that the last great idea out there to save web journalism is for one publisher to force its own adverts over other people’s content in a non-removable iframe. I mean really, is that all there is?! As for your comment that “if a bunch of people dislike” tricks that newspapers try to pull to force readers to stick around their sites– I’m sure you already know that is exactly what *is* happening all across the web, in greater numbers each year. I look forward to people like you and Will working harder to change that for the betterment of newspapers- and the public they serve.

  • http://www.bangordailynews.com William P. Davis, online editor, BDN

    Jason,
    I don’t think many people have been deterred. I haven’t heard from anyone else — and our readers are very vocal — and despite the bar our traffic continues to grow exponentially.

    I’m not saying an iframe is going to save the industry — there are many variables to the solution, and ad revenue is only one of them. But it is one of them.

  • http://jasonclarke.org Jason

    Hi William,

    Thanks for taking the time to offer your perspective. While I appreciate your willingness to be transparent about this issue, I’m pretty surprised at some of the claims you’re putting forth.

    First off, you focus your defense on ads themselves- since that seems like a distraction from my main point, I’ll be crystal clear: I’m not opposed to the Bangor Daily News running ads on the site; far from it. However, it is explicitly unethical when you place those ads on a non-removable iframe over *other people’s content*. That, unlike @SunJournal’s opinion, is *not* how the internet works, and if it were, the whole lot of it would be a wasteland of pop-unders, text overlays, and other crud. And if your answer to avoiding the threat of a paywall really is a non-removable ad frame, it seems that you’re skipping over the wide variety of creative- most of them above-the-board- approaches to growing newsroom revenues that are being tried by organizations all over the world (including some college papers, weeklies, and others).

    Let’s take a look at your next two claims. You write that “others see [the ad frame] as a positive”, which seems baseless and pretty unlikely. As for your claim that “you usually don’t expect it to leave the site”, it sounds like you’re blurring the line for your visitors between navigation points (which visitors expect to keep them on the site) and outlinks, which visitors explicitly do think of as taking them out to another site. There is generally an obvious difference in both design and context for those two types of links, and even basic internet users learn the difference after just a short time on the web.

    Finally, in reference to the publishers who are having their sites trapped within your ad frame without their consent, I am frankly highly suspicious of your claim that you “ask most of them first.” The notion that you hold up an article from being posted so you can personally email places like Down East magazine and Forbes.com to get their permission before linking to them seems difficult in terms of your deadlines and other constraints. Even if that were true, it only shows that you know your ad frame is questionable- otherwise, why bother to ask first?

    I can appreciate your struggle to balance revenue and pageviews with the interests of your readers- but more often than not, if you align those interests you will be better poised for success on both fronts.

  • Casey Chapple

    Jason, of course you are correct. Your answer to William Davis said all that needed to be said, except this: I spent years in Maine and believe it’s one of the best places on earth. But, by definition, it’s provincial and slow to catch on to evolved ways of doing things. It’s nice to think Maine should stay this way, but in this particular case, it’s important that the BDN bow to their grownup brethren and abandon this sleazy practice. What would happen, I wonder, if the New York Times tried to do something like this? I think law suits would be popping up within days.

    Yes, it’s true that most readers don’t care enough about how their web pages are delivered to them to take action against these practices. This apathy may be enhanced in Maine, which may be a cheerful thought to Mr. Davis. “These rubes won’t know the difference.” So it is left to people like you, Jason, to point out the depravity of this behavior. These people, who no doubt call themselves “journalists”, are supposed to be community leaders and role models. The last thing they should be doing is using cheap tricks pulled from a bag of exploitative trash no self-respecting publisher would touch.

    So your tiny revolution got mentioned in Romenesko today. That’s how I got here. Perhaps it is the beginning of the end of Mr. Davis’ resorting to such devices to pay his way. If so, you should be proud and mindful that you’ve contributed admirably to Maine’s estimable stash of soulfulness. In advance, confidently, I congratulate you.

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Exponentially! The editor said his publication’s traffic is growing exponentially! With that kind of growth, you’d think they’d be *printing money* just with standard ads on site! ;)

  • Pingback: Bangor Daily News blurs the line between news and advertising • Jason Clarke()