Tuesday 20 March 2018

Trendsetter: Publishers should pick their battles wisely

‘Plenty of other news outlets have in the past accused Google of abusing its market dominance...’
‘Plenty of other news outlets have in the past accused Google of abusing its market dominance...’
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Speaking at a recent media awards shindig in Australia, Robert Thompson, CEO of News Corp, gave both barrels to new media distributors and the digital world.

He didn't hold back. USA Today's Michael Wolff called it "perhaps the baldest, most unfiltered and least politic attack by an old-media executive on new-media practices".

Thompson didn't point the finger at fickle consumers whose behaviour has changed in the face of new technology; instead he laid the blame at the feet of the digital competition - particularly Google - which he accused of undermining intellectual property rights, devaluing brands and stealing content from traditional publishers.

Charges of "piracy", "zealotry" and "kleptocracy" were levelled at the digital titan.

But Robert Thompson has form when it comes to having a go at the search giant. Last year he wrote to the then European Commissioner for Competition, Joaquin Almunia, branding it a "platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks".

And Thompson isn't alone. Plenty of other news outlets have in the past accused Google of abusing its market dominance, both by giving preferential treatment to its own services and also through unauthorised use of publishers' content.

So does Google really deserve all the bad press it's getting from some quarters of the media?

Well - according to Google - the growth of the internet has fundamentally shifted the balance of power from publisher to end user, and they're just the middle man, albeit with a market cap of over €363bn.

"In today's world, the user has almost all the power," says Madhav Chinnappa, Google's Head of Strategic Relations with Publishers, who has formerly worked with the BBC and AP.

"When I started working in news back in 1994, news organisations had all the power. They had access to all the information, they had all the infrastructure. The barriers to entry were incredibly high - from a news gathering perspective, from a distribution perspective, and from an interactivity perspective. But technology has brought those barriers down."

As a result, Chinnappa believes news organisations now face a new challenge: proving relevance, and justifying the attention they believe they're worth.

"Now we're in a news ecosystem where you're competing with everyone," he says. "Publishers are actually competing with Candy Crush for people's attention.

"Traditionally, if you were to look at commuters on a train, they would be reading books or newspapers. But following the smartphone revolution, if you watch what commuters are doing on their phones and tablets, they're not replicating the old behaviour of reading books and news.

"Some of them are. But they now have so many more choices that they're doing so much more stuff. The competition is so much higher."

But Google recognises that publishers are having a hard time - and it's trying to help out.

It has announced a 'digital news initiative', a programme designed to facilitate conversations with publishers about the products and tools they need to do their job. The initiative involves training for European journalists and newsrooms, research into the changing media landscape, and, of course, cash.

There's an innovation fund of €150m to be divvied up between publishers based on particular projects they suggest.

A cynic would say it's all a sop to an ailing publishing industry. Google says it's a forum for collaboration.

"The digital news initiative was the result of a few different stimuli," says Chinnappa.

"One was a growing feeling internally at Google that we were doing a lot for the news industry - but perhaps our perception within the industry didn't reflect our commitment to it. The digital news initiative is our framework for engagement with the news ecosystem.

"It's effectively a process, and we're not trying to predetermine any of the outcomes," Chinnappa says.

"And sometimes the process is as important as the outcome. You can go to conferences on news, and everyone's looking for the silver bullet, or a magical answer - at one point it was the metered paywall. But if you put the right process in place you can come to a series of outcomes."

So will Google's digital news initiative bring publishers around?

Well, they'll certainly engage, especially seeing as there's a kitty of €150m to compete for, and alternative solutions have failed spectacularly.

Following last year's passing of an intellectual property law in Spain, which made news aggregators liable to pay for showing snippets and linking to news stories, Google simply shut down the Spanish version of Google News.

Who suffered as a result? The Spanish newspapers, of course.

A recent study found the law will cost publishers €10m, and disproportionately affect smaller publishers. Similar legislative interventions have failed in Germany and Belgium.

But Google's digital news initiative may not be enough for News Corp and other publishers with assets outside Europe and the righteous aggression to look for recompense through the courts, rather than legislation that tries to protect their business model.

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