Chances are, Google’s announcement at its annual developer conference on Tuesday that it has comprehensively redesigned Google News will be greeted with scowls and grumbling from many news publishers.
Although Google News will soon be equipped with artificial intelligence to drive new features that give people a deeper, broader experience while presenting them with the news coverage most relevant to their lives, publishers generally feel the company has eaten into their advertising revenue while populating its search results with their articles without offering a whole lot in return.
But Google said it doesn’t want it to be this way.
Last week, Richard Gingras, vice-president of news for Google was in Toronto for a flurry of events as part of the company’s charm offensive aimed at mending relationships with news outlets, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Gingras talked about the importance of local news for a healthy democracy, and the fundamental value of good journalism, but also acknowledged Google’s actions are a matter of financial self-interest since it is a broker of information, connecting users with the internet content they’re searching for.
In light of that, he said, it’s important the search engine maintain a decent relationship with the journalists who produce credible, reliable information.
“We are inextricably linked. In a sense, we both have a common objective,” Gingras said. “Obviously, we think it is important for society that we have a healthy fourth estate, but if I look just at our business motivations, it’s absolutely true that the future and perceived value of Google Search to our users is dependent on there being a rich ecosystem of knowledge on the web.”
Gingras points out Google paid around US$13 billion to publishers last year for ads running through its advertising network, which appear on sites across the internet. He also said it’s not really the company’s fault that the classic journalism business model was wrecked by the internet.
Before the internet, the newspaper was the community go-to source for news as well as job listings, classified ads, recipes, comics and weather forecasts.
But when those things became fragmented online, advertising dollars went to websites catering to those specific niches.
“The truth is if there were no Google and were no Facebook, the same dynamic would have happened, simply because you went from a constrained marketplace of information to an immense one,” Gingras said.
Nevertheless, Google has committed to spend US$300 million worldwide to fund innovative technologies and new programs to help journalists, although there’s still not a lot of detail about how that money will be spent.
In March, the company launched the “Google News Initiative,” which shouldn’t be confused with Google News.
Google News is the tab on the search engine that serves up news stories. There’s also a Google News app, which is where the company will deploy new AI tools to personalize story recommendations and “make it easier for people to not only keep up with the news that matters, but also make sense of it all” according to a company blog post.
One bit of the Google News Initiative unfolded on May 2, when Google invited media outlets to its downtown Toronto office and showered them with gifts.
Brightly coloured Google-branded notepads and pens, as well as devices for advanced two-factor account security were freely available. There were also full-sized chocolate bars in a basket during the mid-morning coffee break, and all the meals were catered.
In between refreshment breaks, Google offered a different sort of gifts. In the morning, about 50 journalists received training on Google products to more effectively research and present stories.
In the afternoon, publishers from across the country were presented with tools that Google is developing for news outlets: machine learning to sort and filter “toxic” web comments, a subscription feature that seamlessly integrates with Google and voice recognition software to drastically reduce transcription work.
At the end of the day, there was an open bar.
In spite of it all, the tone coming from publishers in the room was somewhere between testy and downright hostile.
Many media outlets clearly see Google as a competitor since its core revenue comes from advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers.
“Just for them to know we exist, I guess, is good,” Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, said. “Remember, this is a company that hasn’t treated us very well for a long time.”
Cox said the US$13 billion paid to publishers from Google’s ad network is not really worth all that much, because individual publishers can get much better rates if they sell ads directly to local business, so the Google ads only serve as last-resort filler.
And he called the US$300-million Google News Initiative a “rounding error,” given that Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., recorded US$31 billion in revenue in just the past quarter alone.
“They absolutely say all the right things about wanting to support local news, etc.,” Cox said. “If their intentions are good, maybe it will lead to more meaningful support down the road, but, as of right now, the tools that they rolled out are not enough.”
Ryerson journalism professor April Lindgren was similarly underwhelmed.
“I mean, if they’ve been at this for a year and the best they can come up with is a transcription app, I’m a little bit skeptical,” she said.
Lindgren runs the Local News Project, which tracks the parts of Canada suffering from the greatest “news poverty” as local media outlets close.
She said if Google was really serious about helping local journalism, it could build simple templates to allow out-of-work journalists or community organizers to launch their own local news websites without requiring a lot of technical know-how or expensive web development work.
“I’m glad that Google is putting some money and thought into doing this,” Lindgren said. “I wish they were being more aggressive and more creative about it.”
But Lindgren also saw another dimension: maybe the charm offensive isn’t really about supporting news for the sake of civic engagement, or even for the sake of fostering an open, vibrant web full of useful information for the search engine to index.
Maybe it’s just about keeping up appearances.
“They have one eye on Ottawa and all sorts of discussions on some sort of regulations or taxes,” she said. “I think part of this is aimed at (saying), ‘We’re good corporate citizens, and we’re paying back.’”
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