The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect on 25 May 2018. The law protects individual’s rights over their personal data, both in terms of how it is used and how it is stored.

It led to a flurry of emails from companies seeking to obtain informed consent from users, pop-ups being added to websites to explain data tracking and usage, and the rewriting of privacy policies.

Three months on, a report by the Reuters Institute and University of Oxford has revealed the impact of GDPR on news organisations throughout Europe. It shows a significant fall in the number of third-party cookies used on websites.

The cookie crumbles

Cookies are small text files that are stored on your computer to track activity and save user preferences. A third-party cookie is one that has been “created by a website with a domain name other than the one the user is currently visiting” (via PC Mag).

In the case of news sites, these cookies are often used by advertisers or social media companies to track and analyse activity, for plugins that improve and monitor site performance, or for content hosted elsewhere (e.g. video).

The use of these cookies in Europe fell 22% in the month after GDPR’s introduction. The UK has seen the highest drop, with a reduction of 45%.

the decline in third-party cookie usage on news websites
Graph via Reuters Institute and University of Oxford shows the fall in third-party cookies on news websites


The report suggests that this could be because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • Sites are deferring the use of some tracking cookies until consent has been explicitly provided via a pop-up consent form
  • Sites have undergone a “spring-clean” with out of date features and old code cleaned from the site
  • Sites are avoiding third-party cookies completely to reduce the risk of potential issues
What’s the impact?

As well as the use of third-party cookies declining, users have greater control over opting out of their use. This could prove to be a significant issue for news organisations.

For example, advertisers are a major source of revenue. This is true even for those that operate behind a paywall. Earlier this year, media buyer GroupM predicted that 31% of print media’s total ad revenue in 2018 would be via digital.

This is against a backdrop of falling print advertising. In comments to the UK government’s Select Committee on Communications, John Mew, CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, said that print advertising had declined from 39% to 11% over the last decade.

News sites have also faced competition in recent years from Google and Facebook. Amazon is said to be next.

If advertisers pull away from news organisations the risk is that content suffers, both in quantity and quality. This has implications for audiences, journalists and PRs, as it limits opportunities for news coverage and analysis.

What next?

The surprise is that rather than tackle this issue head-on, it seems that media owners have removed third-party cookies completely. It will be interesting to see if this is just a temporary measure for organisations who did not prepare for GDPR in time (despite a two-year notice period).

News organisations have a choice. They can commit to obtaining explicit consent from users to collect and process data via third parties. Alternatively, they will need to find other funding sources and develop their own tools for their websites. Either way, transparency is essential.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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