The Digital News Initiative: What Should Google Do?

Photo by Eric Karstens

A couple of years ago, media pundit Alan D. Mutter quipped that newspapers were “an industry whose managers run their businesses like the people of Cuba treat their 1953 Plymouths: tinkering with them just enough to keep them running.” (That was before the recent détente with the US, obviously.) And these days, Box CEO Aaron Levie commented in more general terms: “So much of the Fortune 500 is fighting today’s wars with yesterday’s tools. This will be the biggest risk they face in surviving disruption.”

I could add reams of similar quotes, but the diagnosis is pretty clear already: Traditional news providers and journalism outlets – newspapers, magazines, broadcasters – are not only facing increasingly difficult times, many (if not most) of them also appear to be tackling the challenges of the digital world with entirely the wrong means.

Digital immigrants

Let me give just one example: I subscribe to the app-based version of a German broadsheet. Every day, I download a huge file to my iPhone that is essentially a clickable PDF. The file accurately reflects the layout of the printed version and lets me zoom in, but also allows me to call up any article in a mobile-friendly reader view. Effectively, the print layout serves as a table of contents, or menu, for all the day’s articles. As someone who grew up with printed newspapers, I admit that I am actually quite comfortable with that approach; still, would I be if I were a true digital native?

I could go on, but this one aspect already makes the point. The newspaper’s management clearly looks at the electronic news market through the lens of its legacy print-based processes. But even worse, I suspect that it also looks at journalism that way. The same is true, to some extent or another, for the majority of traditional quality journalism outlets (including, by the way, public service broadcasters).

Turning on the charm

Enter Google. The company has announced a €175m European programme called the Digital News Initiative, or DNI in short, to support quality journalism in the digital age. A lot of people immediately shrugged it off as a mere appeasement strategy, highlighting that Google has been under quite some pressure lately from various levels of European lawmakers[i] – not to mention the many influential publishers that just plainly hate Google’s guts and are not shy to say so in public.

Of course, DNI certainly has a PR and lobbying component to it, just like any activity by any private company that spends money on something other than its own core business. Arguably, DNI is even a particularly tricky case in point: In contrast to most sponsorship underwriting, it directly affects the grey area between the commercial interests of Google itself, the commercial interests of European journalism outlets, and the public at large.

Still, I would not simply discard DNI as frivolous. After all, nobody else – at least not in Europe – is throwing this kind of money at making journalism and the news industry fit for the future, self-serving or not. And of the Internet’s current “big five”, Google is without doubt the one with the mission, infrastructure, and expertise closest to news and journalism. News outlets thus could benefit from Google’s money, but also (hopefully) from collaboration with some of the industry’s brightest minds in information processing, content and audience analysis, and online business models.

Setting up firewalls

However, there are a few framework conditions that should be met. The most important of all is the firewall principle: Google itself should not be deciding to whom and how funds get disbursed, which specific projects receive support, or what kind of training workshops and collaborations see implementation.

DNI requires a governance model at arm’s length from both Google and current news industry heavyweights: Run-of-the-mill, European Commission-style stakeholder representation won’t do. The initiative’s greatest risk is that it might end up subsidising the continent’s increasingly precarious incumbent news organisations. Only independent minds can stop that from happening.

Learning from experience

This notwithstanding, partnership with major publishers makes a lot of sense. Their centuries-old expertise in journalism and the public sphere will go a long way informing and inspiring entirely new ideas. If the DNI allows experienced editorial and business staff from newspapers and broadcasters to cooperate freely with born-and-bred Internet nerds, it can avoid the traps of other, similar programmes:

Some initiatives hatched short-sighted, dead-end solutions for news industry incumbents’ most urgent needs. Just think of my abovementioned newspaper app example. It responds to the demand for an electronic subscription offer, but takes care not to disrupt print-centric processes, and it never even considered how the online environment might be fundamentally different.

Other initiatives, frequently the technology-driven ones, made the opposite mistake. With slick-yet-opaque user interfaces they played to other technologists, invented clever-yet-confusing processing algorithms, or went to great lengths to identify some obscure niche that they would try and conquer. But many of them fell short in the area of public relevance.

The best of three worlds

Set up right, Google’s DNI could marry public interest, engineering inventiveness, and business acumen. Activities should therefore take place outside existing, stifling corporate structures, even as many of the individual participants remain affiliated with them; and they should take care to mix and match talent in favour of universal, white label outcomes rather than company-specific solutions. There will still be room for customisation and branding.

Simply having a few rounds of open calls for proposals à la Knight News Challenge is probably not the best way to achieve this. Even open calls require practice and guidance and might only come into their own over time. Applications first tend to be scattered all over the place, thereby risking fragmentation of the original strategy.

Hence, deliberate, well-planned strategic action might be called for:

  • Carefully defined goals and selection criteria;
  • a cascade of moderated and well-structured creative workshops featuring a healthy variety of experts (and not only the usual pundits);
  • accompanying market research as well as scientific research to validate ideas;
  • some directly commissioned development projects;
  • and, as the icing on the cake, a few targeted calls for proposals.

Notably, the DNI’s output should not merely be pieces of software such as apps, but mainly new methodologies, new approaches to quality journalism and the generation of revenue, and perhaps new kinds of contents and presentation.

Renewing news

To my mind, one of the greatest achievements of Google News is that it opened our eyes to the fact that news are a mere commodity – and appallingly redundant at that. But “[f]or the sake of quality journalism,” wrote Jeff Jarvis, “we need more ways to drive audience and business benefit to original and authoritative reporting, not just the 5,287 versions of the same news” (emphasis mine).

If Google’s Digital News Initiative focuses first on supporting the creation and distribution of excellent and timely original digital contents, and then on marketing such contents across the existing institutional silos and linguistic borders, it may well get us closer to such a blessed state of journalism in Europe. It may help legacy news organisations (and legacy-bound journalists) overcome what Clay Shirky famously diagnosed back in 2008: “[O]ne of the problems that old people like me suffer from is [that] we know too many solutions for problems that no longer exist.“

The tinkering days are over.

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[i] There are controversies involving Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain, the Court of Justice of the European Union (PDF) and the European Commission.

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I was interviewed about the topic by the Brazilian magazine Imprensa on 15 June 2015. Obviously, only a fraction of my answers made it into the eventual article that appeared in the July 2015 print edition and was also posted here. Here is the full text of the interview, slightly edited for language:

Q: Google said that will invest in projects that demonstrate new thinking in digital journalism. In your opinion, what is the direction of this “new thinking”?

A: New thinking in digital journalism means that the news industry and journalists need to take a step back to try and look at their business and profession from an entirely fresh perspective. They have to shake off the blinders that come with the legacy of working for print and broadcast, and re-think news from scratch. As Clay Shirky famously put it, “we know too many solutions for problems that no longer exist”.

Take Google’s self-driving car prototype. It hardly even looks like a car. And that makes sense, because for this kind of transportation device, practically none of the paradigms that ruled human-driven cars with combustion engines remains in force. The physics, the psychology, the functionality – they are all different. Looking at the big picture, in journalism we currently face the challenge to come up with the news equivalent of that car.

Among the first steps on that way could, for instance, be algorithmic journalism. Some feel that algorithmic (automated) journalism will cost journalists’ jobs, but I would argue that on the contrary, it can be liberating for journalism: No need any more to re-draft news that a thousand other sources already published, or to toil on tedious routine tasks such as sifting through press releases or company reports. Journalists could instead focus on what really counts: original investigative pieces, explainers, background stories, and op-eds.

Or journalists could get help from intelligent content management systems, as Frédéric Filloux has suggested. Such semantic tools could assist during the research and drafting process, and could help journalists configure their work for the various channels and genres – the web, mobile, wearables, longreads, etc.

Another important area are new business models. Many media organisations and individual reporters still do not fully understand the dynamics of making money online, how to use the new opportunities for advertising and community-building, and how best to tailor their journalistic products to these opportunities.

In summary, I hope the Digital News Initiative will stimulate some radical ideas and experiments. But on the way, it should help many people in the European news industry to develop and discover a new understanding – technologically, practically, economically – in the first place.

Q: The Digital News Initiative’s announcement  happened a few weeks after the European Commission charged Google for abuse of search services on the Internet. How do you assess this situation? In your opinion, what’s the real intention of Google on this?

A: I do not think that the announcement of the Digital News Initiative was a direct reaction by Google to the European Commission’s charges. But if the Digital News Initiative helps put Google in a better light with regulators, and wins the company new friends in the publishing industry, I am sure that would be welcome side effects. And naturally, as any commercial enterprise, Google only does things that it believes to be in its best business interests.

However, Google has always exhibited a strong interest in the news industry. I think the company has understood early on that journalism enhances the experience for Google’s users. Vice versa, Google’s services enable journalists to do their work more efficiently and with more background information.

After all, part of Google’s self-stated mission is “to organise the world’s information”. Journalism and news media have always been doing exactly that. So effectively, Google and news are a match made in heaven, which is why the eponymous Google News was already launched in 2002. Ever since, Google has supported various journalism initiatives, but it did so in a sporadic and scattered fashion. I guess Google noticed that they owed something to the news industry, and I see the Digital News Initiative as an attempt eventually to organise and focus cooperation with the journalistic profession.

Q: What will be the impact of this project on the European publishing market?

A: If all goes well, the Digital News Initiative will speed up the transition process to a genuinely digital news industry. Some legacy news organisation might go out of business sooner than they would have anyway, others might manage to adapt themselves more quickly and with less pain to the new framework conditions. First and foremost, however, I would hope that many new initiatives emerge, that a large number of individual journalists develop a profitable publishing niche for themselves, and that new types of news organisations and news communities spring up.

Q: How do you assess the transition of the media to digital?

A: I think the European publishing (and broadcasting) market is currently at a stage where the music industry was about eight to ten years ago. And the music industry still has not really settled into a stable new business model. Therefore I expect that the transition for the publishing market will be similarly difficult and protracted. The good news for journalists, in my opinion, is that they can be the winners of this process. I am not so optimistic for the publishers.

However, I think that one of the biggest risks for the market is concentration of ownership. We have seen in other sectors of the digital economy that big players, among them Google, tend to buy and swallow up emerging competitors. In the news industry, such concentration can be even worse than in other areas. In an ideal scenario, a big player such as Google would cooperate with smaller players on a mutually beneficial partnership basis, and in such a way fortify them against acquisitions.

Q: At some point, do you believe that this partnership can affect the editorial freedom of the outlet?

A: There is always a risk that partnerships between media and other companies influence the editorial output – consciously or unconsciously. On the other hand, media companies never live in a vacuum; they depend on advertisers, paper manufacturers, software companies, governments, and many others. So on the one hand, safeguarding journalistic independence remains the responsibility of journalists with a strong ethical conscience. But on the other hand, a large-scale programme such as the Digital News Initiative should also set up an intelligent “firewall”, an open and independent-minded governance, between Google and the news industry.

What I mean with that is that not Google alone should decide which organisations and which projects receive support. But neither should Google simply hand over the money to the news industry’s big names (as they did in France back in 2013) – if incumbent publishers and broadcasters are allowed to decide where the funding goes, there will be no real progress or new thinking, but just prolonged agony.