As Facebook becomes the dominant source for news, Google tries to make friends with the press

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Google is on a mission to make itself more loved by the news industry.

For so long it has been regarded by newspapers as a threat, the great beast of faraway Mountain View which undermines their businesses with its disruptive algorithms. One of its most outspoken critics, the News Corp CEO Robert Thomson, compared it in 2009 to “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet”. Even now, its name is invariably spat out by news executives (usually after the words “Facebook and…”), for siphoning away the digital advertising revenue they’d planned to depend on.

Though Google’s innovation leaders regard such accusations as grossly unfair, the company is taking determined strides to dispel the negative press narrative by repositioning itself as a force for good in news. In a troubled world, where facts must be fished from a bottomless sea of free content, the search engine giant needs to refer its users to trustworthy sources.

The Digital News Initiative

Google is reaching out to news companies by trying to offer practical technology-based solutions to the problems the industry is facing. Google is supporting AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), a project which allows mobile phone users to scroll a carousel of news stories on their searched subject, upload them rapidly, and read them on the website of the news provider that authored them. Google News Lab is a collaboration with journalists and media entrepreneurs to develop a digital toolkit to improve the way news is found and distributed; it has provided training to 12,000 journalists (including 2,000 in the UK).

Most interesting of all, the Google Digital News Initiative (DNI) is providing millions of pounds in grants to news businesses to change the future of journalism. The project is now a year old and starting to bear fruit. It promises to use technological innovation to revolutionise investigative reporting, to fund the coverage of overlooked stories and reduce trolling in comments sections.

DNI is based in Europe, which is where Google faces its biggest public relations challenges over accusations of underpaid taxes and anti-competitive practices. As director of strategic relations for news & publishers across EMEA, Madhav Chinnappa must build bridges with the European news industry and make DNI a success. Chinnappa, UK-based and Indian born, is charming – as you would expect from someone in such a key diplomatic role – but doesn’t see himself as your typical Googler. “I’m a news guy, news is my thing,” he says, noting that he previously worked for many years at the BBC and before that at the Associated Press.

He is ready to admit that, before he joined Google in 2010, he regarded its corporate culture with frustration. “If I’m being completely honest with you, often when I worked at the BBC I used to find dealing with Google quite difficult. They didn’t quite get news and when they did they would always [launch] stuff in the US.”

But arriving at Google he found that executives and engineers were mystified by being characterised as a predatory force, when the company has built so many features (from search, to Google News, to YouTube) that have helped news organisations build an online presence. “It was a cultural difference,” explains Chinnappa.

Google is, to borrow the words of Nina Simone, “a soul whose intentions are good”, so it would have the news industry believe.

The DNI initiative is “an acknowledgement that we probably hadn't worked in the most effective ways before and that was why we were a bit misunderstood”, says Chinnappa, “DNI is our expression that we absolutely care about the [news] ecosystem and we are part of it and we are going to develop this together.”

Cynics might argue that Google, tired of receiving almost relentlessly negative headlines in Europe, identified a long-term investment in spending a little of its vast financial resources on a project that partners it with some of its critics. Chinnappa admits that “we were getting a kicking and some criticisms for some time” but says that DNI is not a PR exercise.

Building bridges with the press

Without question, the news industry has responded favourably to the project. Originally founded with eight media partners (including The Guardian, El Pais, La Stampa and Die Ziet), DNI now has 160 news organisations signed up. In its first tranche of grants it made 128 awards to innovation projects in 23 countries, worth a total €27m. Applications for a pot of €23m are currently being approved and a further €100m will be made available over the next two years.

Chinnappa says he was overwhelmed by the 1,236 applications received in the initial round. “I underestimated the response and we didn’t resource it well enough to handle it. That’s why it has taken us longer than we would have hoped but on some levels that’s a good problem to have.”

Some of DNI’s innovations have the potential to transform online news. The Greek digital media group Liquid Media is using machine learning (when computers learn without being programmed) to “identify harassment, profanity and trolling” in user comments, and improve the quality of debate on news sites. It’s important work at a time when news providers are increasingly closing down comments sections because of the poisonous language deployed. “I find the number of websites that are shutting down comments is troubling,” says Chinnappa, expressing a personal view. “I understand why they’re doing it but I think shutting them down is not the answer.”

Another DNI project sees Spain’s El Diario trialling the use of crowd-

funding in journalism. Users are asked to choose which stories are pursued by the paper, and to financially support their chosen assignments. The tactic (already being explored in the UK by sites such as Byline) could help develop an important revenue stream for news.

The Polish media company Agora, the publisher of leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, has a DNI-supported scheme to “X-ray politics” by allowing the public to search the career histories of Polish politicians. “They are trying to track what politicians do in terms of their spend, their voting record, and their public statements, so you can track what they're doing. I think it’s opening up politics in Poland,” says Chinnappa. UK users will recognise similarities with the They Work For You site, but DNI is spreading valuable learning across the European news sector.

Innovating companies retain the IP of their work but Chinnappa says that almost all participants wish to share what they have discovered and “be as public as possible”. He is an enthusiast for news innovation and has personally donated to projects outside of DNI, including Sweden’s Blank Spot Project to identify important global news stories that are being ignored by media, and the ambitious Hungarian investigative journalism site Direkt36.

UK organisations have claimed a comparatively modest €2.8m of the DNI pot so far (while German projects account for €4.9m) but Chinnappa denies the British take up has been slow.

The Daily Telegraph’s recent Euro 2016 coverage included use of the DNI-funded Roboblogger, which enables it to drop charts and rich infographics into live blogs using real-time data. Mirror Group Newspapers is developing an app called Perspecs, offering takes from three different new sources on a given story. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a “Local News Lab” project to support local news journalists in rooting out public interest stories. And the South West News Service news agency is creating a transparent syndication platform to aid citizen journalists in distributing material to mainstream publishers.

Facing up to Facebook

It’s in Google’s interest that its users can easily discover high-quality reporting. But it is also aware that its relationship with news providers is changing, as a result of the growth of its Silicon Valley rival Facebook. Google’s share as the source of total referrals to news and entertainment websites has slipped from 40 per cent to 35 per cent in the past four years. In that time, Facebook’s slice of the news referral business has grown from 12 per cent to 40 per cent, taking the number one slot.

Having achieved a dominant position, Facebook recently alarmed news companies by stating that posts from “friends and family” should take priority over stories from “liked” news sources in a user’s feed, and changed its algorithm accordingly. The decision could have major and damaging implications for news outlets that depend on Facebook for much of their traffic.

In such an environment it makes sense for Google to look for friends in the news business. The Financial Times said recently that it found the Mountain View company (and its AMP platform) easier to collaborate with than other Internet giants.

AMP (built collectively by more than 7,000 developers working on the open software platform GitHub) epitomises the new openness which Google wishes to be associated with. It allows news stories to be uploaded four times quicker on mobile, using a tenth of the data. Big social media brands, including Twitter and Pinterest, are part of the project. But not Facebook, which has its own Instant Articles platform for news on the mobile web.

Chinnappa is reluctant to talk too much about Mark Zuckerberg’s company, except to say: “I have personally been encouraging Facebook to come to different events and conferences. I think it would be good for the overall ecosystem if they were much more in the ecosystem.”

As for his own employer, he claims that DNI is helping define Google as a benign presence in that same news ecosystem. “I think, with the British understatement, we are less misunderstood.”

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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