Tofu, hogs, and brand-safe news
22 October 2017
(I work for Mozilla. None of this is secret. None of this is official Mozilla policy. Not speaking for Mozilla here.)
The following is an interesting business model, so I'm going to tell it whether it's true or not. I once talked with a guy from rural China about the tofu business when he was there. Apparently, considering the price of soybeans and the price you can get for the tofu, you don't earn a profit just making and selling tofu. So why do it? Because it leaves you with a bunch of soybean waste, you feed that to pigs, and you make your real money in the hog business.
Which is sort of related to the problem that (all
hard news isn't brand-safe. It's
hard to sell travel agency ads on a plane crash story,
or real estate ads on a story about asbestos in the
local elementary schools, or any kind of ads on a
disturbing, but hard to look away from, political
In the old-school newspaper business, the profitable ads can go in the lifestyle or travel sections, and subsidize the hard news operation. The hard news is the tofu and the brand-friendly sections are the hogs.
On the web, though, where you have a lot of readers coming in from social sites, they might be getting their brand-friendly content from somewhere else. Sites that are popular for their hard news are stuck with just the tofu.
This is one of the places where it's going to be interesting to watch the shift from unpermissioned user data collection to user data sharing by permission. As people get better control of how they share data with sites—whether that's through regulation, browsers scrambling for users, or both—how will a site's ability to deliver trustworty hard news give it an advantage?
The browser may have to adapt to treat trustworthy and untrustworthy sites differently, in order to come up with a good balance of keeping sites working and implementing user norms on data sharing. Will news sites that publish hard news stories that are often visited, shared, and commented on, get a user data advantage that translates into ad saleability for their more brand-safe pages? Does better user data control mean getting the hog business back?