What could Google do? (If it cared about journalism)

I wrote this post on June 4th, 2016. I did not publish it at the time, due to conflicting interests. Now that they are gone, the piece is yours to read, in its original version.

In April 2015, Google said it wanted to be a “friend and a partner to the news industry”.1 On that occasion, Google created a money pot worth €150m for European publishers, the Digital News Initiative (DNI), to be spent over a few years.2 The amount represents about 30 hours’ worth of Google’s global revenues.3

Google also organizes Newsgeist, a gathering of European media people it invites once a year (Google pays for the conference room and food, but not for hotel or transportation). I attended the first two editions and, before I start criticizing, I must admit that the people running Newsgeist are absolutely great - they managed to set up a networking event no publisher or association had ever done.

Google cares about content - not journalism

During the first edition of Newsgeist, a Google representative told me that it was possible to make money with journalism: “just look at the Daily Mail”, she said. Of course, anyone who has read the Daily Mail understands that such content cannot be called journalism.4 The Mail actively engages in spreading lies and hatred. Unlike most other tabloids around Europe, it does so purposefully.5 The Mail is only one instance of a media company aggressively producing content with a total disregard for facts. Government-sponsored organizations such as Russia One, the Hungarian state media apparatus and others are happy to remix falsehoods sent their way by the administration and publish them as news.6 The regular publication of lies by established media organizations allows for the emergence of several versions of the truth, to a point where different categories of the population hold world views that are so different that any debate is impossible.7

If the consequence of publishing falsehoods it so huge - the disintegration of society - surely an organization that pretends to be interested in journalism would have thought about it. It hardly has. The above-mentioned Google representative did not make the difference between content, which is what anyone can publish, and information, which is the result of a journalist’s quest for the truth. Indeed, Google has absolutely no incentive to make a distinction between types of content based on their truthfulness. The company can sell advertisements next to facts or fiction indifferently.

Despite this lack of incentive, the company insists it cares about journalism. After all, the millions it poured in the DNI represent a substantial amount of money.

What Google is doing

The DNI is surprising, because publishers and Google both compete for advertising revenues. When a competitor offers to be your friend, one should probably be weary.

Of its own admission, the DNI exists to fund innovative projects throughout Europe and sees itself as a reunion of publishers which, alongside with Google, can discuss and find solutions to the challenges they face. The DNI is not an investment fund. Its role is to give away money and, probably, disappear. Some publishers actually did benefit from the help of the various Google funds and much prefer this to Google investing in their companies. Many others used the money to fund white elephants that have no hope of achieving profitability.

European venture capitalists are notoriously reluctant to fund anything other than commercial services online. It’s not a surprise if, over the past 30 years, Europe saw no equivalent of CNN, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed or VICE News.8 In Europe, most media investors follow the strategy elaborated by French telecoms oligarch Xavier Niel, which he summed up in the following sentence: “When a journalist bugs me, I invest in his fucking newspaper and then he leaves me alone”.9

There are investment funds specialized in media organizations, most notably the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF). This fund is explicitly not interested in “content” or in “journalism” but in “the news, information and debate that people need to build free societies”. In other words, it thought hard about its role and the impact it wanted to have. I doubt that MDIF would ever consider a Daily Mail clone as worthy of funding. MDIF has an incentive to see the funded projects prosper in the long run, because its goal is to make money from its investments. To give a sense of perspective, the DNI is spending in a few years more than MDIF has invested since its creation in 1996.10

Google does have investment funds, too. When Google became interested in transportation, it did not create a money pot to give some money to Uber, some money to Lyft and some money to the New-York Transportation Authority. It did not ask them to develop innovative solutions. It did not ask them to solve the transportation issue together. It invested massively in one project and actively supports it (it bought a $258m stake in Uber and added an “Uber” feature in Google Maps.11 One cannot but notice the different approach Google took to European journalism.

Of course, a cynic could see the DNI as a way to neutralize European publishers and prevent them from exercising power in the only area they are still superior to Google: Influence on policy makers. Distracted by what is, to them, a huge pool of money, publishers are less likely to lobby governments and ask them to get tougher on Google (regarding its tax-dodging, say, or its monopolistic position).

But certainly no one would think that way.

What Google could do

At its most obvious, Google could invest in journalistic operations, just like MDIF does. It could create an independent investment fund. Google could also do something else, potentially much more impactful, and fund actions of journalism directly. Not projects, not companies, just actual reporting. JournalismFund or JournalismGrants are two examples of successful grant-givers that finance reporting in Europe using funds from (mostly American) foundations. By having an independent jury of respected journalists awarding reporting grants, Google would ensure that more journalism is produced which is up to the best standards of the profession. The pieces could be published in any European news organization, irrespective of its size.

Funding reporting is straightforward. But Google could improve it significantly by making sure that this journalism reaches its intended audience. By providing a budget for marketing (on AdWords, obviously), Google could help these pieces of journalism reach an audience that does not read traditional news outlets such as Le Monde, FAZ or Gazeta Wyborzca. A piece on the MNB scandal, for instance (a friend of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban embezzled about €1bn and gave it to friends12), could be proposed to an audience that rarely consumes anything other than official Hungarian TV. A story on how Russia funds the Front National could be served to people who are likely to be Front National voters.13 Most publishers are not interested in reaching out new, often unprofitable audiences. But this is what is needed to counter the trail of falsehoods that are propagated by the likes of the Daily Mail and Russia One. Only Google has the power to do this.

Google could also require that journalists who are awarded grants provide good analytics reports. It could require journalists in the program to run A/B tests on their stories. It could require them to improve a story until the proportion of readers who read it to the end reaches a certain level. In other words, it could help determine which stories work and which do not. It could really improve journalism.

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Notes

1. Read Why Google set up the Digital News Initiative in Europe

2. Full disclosure: We applied to the DNI and did not get funded. So this might just be a rancorous rant. [That was true in June 2016. We thereafter were awarded a 50,000€ grant for the Offshore Journalism Toolkit project.]

3. Assuming $75 billion in revenues, which is about right when looking at their income statement.

4. The following paragraph is a summary of my ‘Ignite talk’ at Newsgeist Bilbao. The person in question also mentioned the Telegraph as a successful example, just weeks after Peter Oborne quit in protest of the newspaper’s censorship of the ‘SwissLeaks’ stories.

5. This testimony from a former staffer of the Mail in New-York makes this point: My Year Ripping Off the Web With the Daily Mail Online.

6. Anecdotes on Russian media repeating the Kremlin’s lies abund. Here’s one on Hungarian media, for a change: Hungary state media hits new low with report on refugee cell phone.

7. This point is well made by Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post: ‘What Was Fake on the Internet This Week: Why This Is the Final Column.

8. Euronews could stand the comparison, but it was initially funded with the public funds of European public service broadcasters, not private ones.

9. In Un Si Petit Monde. Read online Comment « Le Monde » fut vendu.

10. Read on MDIF’s website.

11. Read at TechCrunch Google Ventures Puts $258M Into Uber, Its Largest Deal Ever

12. Read more at Bloomberg: Hungarian Bank Owner Denies Special Treatment by Cousin Matolcsy

13. On the topic, read Luke Harding’s We should beware Russia’s links with Europe’s right.


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