Monday 21 May 2018

Google chief focused on big news

Google is a founding member of the Coalition for Better Ads, which aims to improve the consumer online ad experience
Google is a founding member of the Coalition for Better Ads, which aims to improve the consumer online ad experience
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Madhav Chinnappa is Google's Director of Strategic Relations for News and Publishers. It's a role he clearly enjoys. "I have to admit I think I've got one of the greatest jobs ever," he says. "Don't get me wrong there are some challenges to it as well. But in reality, this is a really exciting time for news and technology."

Chinnappa isn't a techie. His background is in the media; he's worked for the Associated Press, United News & Media (now UBM), and the BBC. Now, as Google's head honcho for working with publishers, he has an intriguing viewpoint on the challenges facing the news industry today, and how media and the consumption of media is set to change in the coming years.

"I think there's been a real sea-change in attitude towards technology and the news ecosystem overall. A lot of publishers are saying we need to think seriously about digital, we need to ingrain that into everything we're doing, and we need to make it core to our thinking, rather than a secondary thing that's over there."

Despite the fact that digital media has been around for some time, Chinnappa isn't surprised it's taken publishers some time to realise its importance. "You do have the innovator's dilemma problem," he says. "If 90pc of your revenues are coming from print and the newspaper, there's an entire system that's designed to keep that going. In news in particular, it's a full-time job to do what you did yesterday much better today. It's constant. It's relentless. So when it comes to talking to experimentation and innovation and all the things that technology companies like to talk about, that can be really difficult when you've got a really tough day job."

Many of the media companies that Chinnappa deals with are also realising that the web is an open system, not a series of walled gardens. "I think there's been more of a realisation that this is a news ecosystem, as oppose to a linear news industry," he says. "The connections that we have with the tech companies, the data companies, the journalists with the audience; everything is interconnected now in a much more symbiotic way. I'm seeing publishers collaborate a lot more. In this ecosystem you need to figure out where you need to compete and where you need to collaborate."

So what does the future hold for the media industry from Chinnappa's unique perspective? He namechecks all the usual hot topics; voice, machine learning and augmented reality and virtual reality, though he admits he's slightly unconvinced about AR & VR. However, he believes that it's the human factor that's most interesting and hardest to predict.

"The bigger unknown is how humans are going to react to all this," he says. "What will be the human behaviour of news consumption. We've gone from reading a paper to waiting for the 10 o'clock news to being bombarded with information - and what's the next cycle of that? Who knows?"

On a far more immediate level, I asked for his take on how Facebook's news feed changes will affect publishers. He wasn't too interested in discussing what Facebook is up to. "A bunch of publishers have realised that what Facebook does and what Google does are two very different things," he says. "Conflating us isn't helpful. We've been working with news publishers for 15 years. As a search engine, we're there to try to provide answers and direct users to websites. Everybody benefits from a better news information ecosystem. That's why we are concentrating our efforts on the health of the ecosystem."

Some of that effort relates to improving the experience around online ads. Google is a founding member of the Coalition for Better Ads, which aims to improve the consumer online ad experience.

The coalition has suggested a host of ad formats - the invasive, annoying ones mostly - which most publishers should axe. The problem is, these ads are often the ones that perform best, at least in the short term.

"There's a real understanding that we need to do better about ads and come at it from a user perspective," Chinnappa says. "But there's the dynamic of long-term versus short-term. For the health of the long-term ecosystem those short-term intrusive ads, we need to cut down on them. But we need to do this with data, to understand that some ad formats are OK and some are beyond the pale. This is nuanced. It's not black and white.

"But if everyone's thinking short-term, then there isn't going to be a very healthy long-term."

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