Monday 17 June 2019

Google not faking news initiative

Google is all too aware of the commercial pressures facing publishers
Google is all too aware of the commercial pressures facing publishers
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

While Facebook was feeling the heat in the press this week, Google, the other notable digital behemoth, was throwing money at the media.

On Tuesday, the search giant announced that it would spend $300m over the next three years on initiatives to help news publishers struggling to make ends meet online. It's called the Google News Initiative. The name may sound familiar; that's because Google already has its Digital News Initiative which provides funding and training to European publishers. The new initiative will bring all Google's news related programmes under one umbrella.

So what was does this umbrella cover? Well first off there's a US partnership with the Poynter Institute, Stanford University, and the Local Media Association that aims to improve digital information literacy for young internet users. It'll be called MediaWise, and will involve classroom education, videos, and some teen-favourite YouTube personalities will be thrown in for good measure. The most timely element of the announcement was the launch of a group to combat disinformation during elections and around breaking news. This will be called Disinfo lab and will be run in tandem with First Draft, a fact-checking initiative from the Harvard Kennedy School. Google also launched an open source tool called Outline, that will make it easy to set up a virtual private network via a cloud service provider to help protect sensitive sources.

Then there's the bit that will be of real interest to the news media: stuff that will help them make money. Google is all too aware of the commercial pressures facing publishers. It has caused many of them, and provides solutions to many others. It controls how many users access news, through search, the android operating system, and Google News; it offers publishers a suite of enterprise tools from analytics to tag manager; it runs the Double Click, the product most publishers use to serve ads; and Chrome, the most popular web browser on earth, now blocks a variety of ads that Google has decided are verboten.

Subscribe with Google is a new tool that aims to make it easy for users to, well, subscribe using Google accounts and tech to publishers with a paywall. Users who have payment options associated with their Google accounts will be able to subscribe with a couple of clicks and the subscriptions will work on any device where the user is logged in. Google has indicated that it will take a cut of the subscriptions, but only a small cut; the aim is to cover the running costs for the system. Interestingly, Google will modify its search results for anyone who uses this method of subscription. If you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal you'll be more likely to see articles from the Wall Street Journal when you search for news. Google has to be careful here; it's algorithm needs to stay perfectly balanced and can't be seen to favour one source of news over another - even if one source of news uses Google services.

It's an impressive list of supports for the publishing industry. Mind you, much of what's listed above is already out there under the aegis of the Digital News Initiative or Google's News Lab and other programmes. But will it all make much of a difference to a media industry that has struggled to adapt to how audience consumption habits and marketing budgets have changed?

It will undoubtedly help some news outlets. But anyone working in news who thinks Google will sort out all their problems is kidding themselves. At best, Google's News Initiative will provide insights and assistance to those media outlets who have already committed to a clear strategy. Not a digital strategy, but a business strategy that encompasses digital. But there is one company that will definitely benefit. Google.

It's a nice PR win in a week when digital platforms are under scrutiny. I have no doubt that Google has the best intentions. It would benefit from a stronger news industry.

All the programmes it has worked on in the news arena have been done in tandem with the very best academic partners, or open sourced so Google can point to its own lack of desire to control outcomes.

But almost every element of the initiative has a direct benefit for Google. MediaWise will consolidate the company's footprint in American classrooms; with Double Click Google has advertising sewn up and now with a subscription offering, it will be a intermediary between paying audiences and publishers. And all the time, it will be gathering more information on users' news consumption.

For Google, it's win win.

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