A force for good in news? Google says it's forging a new 'sharing culture' in media

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 a force for good in news that is fostering a new “sharing culture” and “collaborative approaches” in a competitive industry, one of the tech giant’s senior executives says.

Ludovic Blecher identifies a fresh spirit of co-operation among news publishers resulting from the €140m (£121m) that Google has spent since 2015 on European projects designed to build sustainability in digital journalism. The initiatives range from fact-checking and tackling fake news to improving payment models for publishers.

“A great but unexpected side-effect of what has been done is a kind of news community born out of [these] initiatives,” says Blecher, one of Google’s senior figures working with the news industry. “In terms of innovation there is much more of a research and development culture in the news ecosystem but even more importantly a sharing culture.”

Many publishers still see Google as the enemy because of its dominance of advertising revenues. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia recently called on competition authorities to break up the Silicon Valley company due to damage it is allegedly causing to Australia’s news media. It called for Google’s parent, Alphabet, to divest either Google Search or Google Ad Manager.

But Blecher, who was leader of the Google Digital News Initiative (DNI) innovation fund, points to £10.6m it has spent on 66 projects in the UK, and highlights publishers working together across Europe to solve common challenges in digital journalism by sharing experiences. “We have seen more and more publishers trying to learn from each other about success and failure, in order to learn from what others have tested through the DNI project,” he says. “[It] is interesting to see more and more collaborative approaches; publishers coming together to try to solve big issues”.

The DNI recently announced the last of the 662 projects it is has funded in 30 European countries since 2015. Blecher is now head of innovation for the global Google News Initiative (GNI) which launched in March 2018 with a further $300m (£232m) from Alphabet’s deep coffers to spend over three years to “fight false news and help publishers make money”.

Potential game-changing breakthroughs funded by DNI include a project developed by Portugal’s Global Media Group to enable users to access multiple news sites through a single sign-on. In Slovakia, the publisher Dennik N created REMP (Readers’ Engagement and Monetisation Platform), an open source toolkit which helps any publisher to increase online subscriptions.

Debunked, a Lithuania-based project, has built an AI tool that claims to identify fake news within two minutes. Blecher notes that it has tracked more than 4m articles and debunked hundreds of stories. “It’s had an impact at a [national] and regional level,” he says, praising the site’s slogan of ‘Debunking Disinformation Together’. “It’s this idea of ‘let’s do it together’. It goes back to this collaborative covenant I was talking about.”

In the UK, London-based company Trint is speeding up the entire process of journalism thanks to a £50,000 prototype AI-powered transcription tool that it has developed for an international market. After early funding from Google, Trint last month raised $4.5 million (£3.5m) in investment. Founded by former ABC and CBS foreign correspondent Jeff Kofman, Trint has The Washington Post and Vice News newsrooms among its clients.

LGBT specialist Pink News is working on a project to enable readers to respond to take action on stories that have snagged them, such as by making donations to relevant charities. Norwich-based Archant is responding to the growth in voice-activated news by making its 150-year-old archive available to the public in audio formats through a project called Local Recall.

Such initiatives have value to the wider news ecosystem, Blecher believes. “It’s a knowledge base that is absolutely inspiring. What’s interesting is that for similar challenges people are coming with very different solutions.”

For example, Nice-Matin and The Irish Times are both using DNI money to explore how to better connect with diaspora readers who want to stay in touch with news back home. The Irish Times has built a content section, Abroad, which is aimed at “Irish readers overseas” and has attracted more than 24,000 members.

Attracting and monetising these diaspora readerships will be crucial for the financial futures of all regional-based news publishers. So too will the task of getting younger readers to pay for local news. The DNI fund is backing the East of France publisher EBRA in its Local Pulse project, dedicated to creating paid-for apps that serve modern digital content to urban readers who have shown themselves less willing than rural readers to continue buying a traditional newspaper.

Now that DNI is coming to an end, Blecher is focused on the global GNI project, which is making a series of regional ‘Innovation Challenges’ to projects seeking financial help. It recently approved funding of $3.2m (£2.5m) for 23 projects in the Asia Pacific region dedicated to finding ways to enhance reader revenues. They included an idea from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun to enable readers to tip stories they deem valuable, in the hope they will later become subscribers.

The Europe Innovation Challenge for GNI is on the theme of supporting local news, which Blecher acknowledges as a “matter of huge concern”.

He is speaking from Cairo, where the GNI has issued an Innovation Challenge to publishers in the Middle East and Africa. The GNI represents Google’s “framework at the global level” for supporting “journalism and the news ecosystem”, he says. “It’s around partnership and collaboration with the news industry and organisations to solve important industry-wide challenges, and developing products to drive innovation.”

One important arm of GNI is the Subscribe with Google (SwG) scheme, which promises to give publishers a friction-free route for signing up new subscribers. The 50 publishing partners that have come on board for SwG so far include The Financial Times, Washington Post and Nine Publishing, which owns The Sydney Morning Herald.

Blecher is excited that SwG is being extended to include open publishing models that shun a paywall and instead encourage readers to contribute payments as members. The Guardian, a leader in this model, is testing this new ‘Contribute with Google’ feature.

Then there is Google’s News Lab, which has trained 300,000 journalists in fact-checking and other digital skills, and aims to increase that to 500,000 by the end of next year. Some 20,000 UK journalists have received this support so far. “We have provided almost £3m worth of free training for journalists in the UK,” Blecher says.

This week Google announced revenues of $36.34bn for the first three months of this year (up 17% on the year before but below Wall Street expectations and causing a drop in share price). It is expected to take 40% share of the UK’s digital ad revenues by 2021 (up from 36.7% in 2018), according to eMarketer.

The money it’s putting into the pot for saving news, it could be argued, is a pittance compared to what it’s taking out.

But the news industry desperately needs digital answers and the 662 projects that have had money from Google’s DNI fund, and those that will be backed by the GNI’s Innovation Challenge, are creating a vital well of learning, from which all of publishing can drink.

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

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