Why Google’s Digital News Initiative might fail

Photo by Eric Karstens

When Google announced the Innovation Fund of its Digital News Initiative (DNI) this spring, I was pleasantly surprised. It appeared as if an organisation with the appropriate clout and credibility was finally making the European news industry get a move on. And indeed, innovation remains in short supply in Europe, with the journalism ecosystem no exception.

The need

US companies and initiatives keep calling the shots. Wolfgang Blau, for instance, warned in his keynote speech at the 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia: “These organisations have size and resources which give them an advantage over domestic market leaders. I wished [the] journalism industry in Continental Europe were a bit more aware of what is coming.” And he added: “These are excellent publications, but they produce a different frame from what it would be if it came from a European city.”

Europe needs a boost to catch up with the technological skills as well as the contents-related prowess of the globalised competition, and that boost would be most meaningful if it leveraged the strengths, traditions, and diversity of European journalism cultures.

But now Google has published the first call for proposals under the DNI, and my initial optimism is waning fast.

Lessons not learned

The most important issue is the lack of vision and direction. In effect, the current DNI call is for something, anything, to do with journalism, and that is just not specific enough. Previously, Google has supported, inter alia, the Knight News Challenge and the IPI News Innovation Contest. Those programmes were much smaller than DNI, yet followed similar principles: Open calls for proposals under broad mottos. But when you browse the winning projects, you learn that most of that money just fizzled out. Websites cannot be reached anymore, companies and teams have moved on, and few of the would-be innovations really caught on in the industry. If anything, they merged as incremental innovations into larger initiatives.

The reason for this is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw of this type of grant programmes. When you publish an open call, what you get are not solutions for structural problems of the news industry, but solutions for the individual funding demands of all kinds of news-related organisations. Almost everybody’s first thought will be “How can I get my hands on that money?”, followed by a scramble for a concept primarily designed to please the funder. More often than not, the outcomes are contrived, overly specialised pro domo projects with doubtful use cases. As the Knight and IPI examples demonstrate, many do not even benefit the applicants themselves in the long run, let alone the journalism ecosystem at large.

Reversing the process

I understand that such scattershot calls are supposed to tap as broadly as possible into the creative potential, drawing out players that otherwise might have gone overlooked. You just hope that a few of the funded projects turn out to be accidental hits. However, I think this could better be achieved the other way round: Set up a system where independent industry pundits, technologists, economists, creative minds, futurologists, and, not least, experienced practitioners, first try to nail down a vision of things that might really push forward the news and journalism sector. A series of well-managed workshops convening just the right mix of participants will do the trick. Only then publish specific calls for the targeted development and implementation of the thus envisioned techniques and technologies. I think many large grant-making foundations would second my observation that grant schemes run like procurement are much more efficient than open ones. There can still be an open component to rake in some outliers, if need be.

Because what the European news industry needs are not particular solutions that may or may not help some existing news organisation to work more easily or survive the next year; what it needs are universal infrastructures, cross-cutting technologies, company-agnostic applications, interdisciplinary influx, and multi-lingual processes. It needs to leverage machine intelligence and deep learning, but it also needs better to manage the humble day-to-day business of creating and distributing the news, or smart ways to sell journalism to an appreciative audience.

You know, like Google the search engine, Google the translator, Google the provider of collaborative working environments, Google the news aggregator, Google the video platform, Google the provider of drive-by advertising revenue, and so on. It is hard to conceive that a company such as Google (or now rather Alphabet), which is in the business of organising the world’s information and runs exceedingly vision-driven projects in its Google X arm, does not realise this.

I am afraid that if DNI continues to run like this, it will manage to appease the Google-hating European publishing industry, like it did in France, but not pave the way to the next level.

Muddled governance

Another issue with DNI is governance. The nine-person decision-making council consists of three Google executives, two media association lobbyists, two newspaper CEOs, and merely two members who are somewhat independent (i.e., with Mozilla and the renowned French Sciences-Po journalism school, respectively). However, even the latter two are former big-media career executives. To be sure, these are all excellent and high-profile sector experts, but they represent the usual suspects, the powers-that-be. And this, in turn, increases the likelihood that they will recognise in particular such projects that help sustain their constituents’ status quo rather than sow the seeds of disruption.

[Update on 28 November 2015: Google has added four more jurors with independent and innovation-friendly backgrounds to the council of jurors, thus significantly improving the balance and scope.]

The participating Googlers – if they must participate in the jury at all – are a disappointing choice, too. Only one of them has an actual background in the journalism sector, but what is sorely missing are the likes of Google employees such as Astro Teller, Geoffrey Hinton, or Vint Cerf. Granted, these are the company’s superstars, but I am pretty sure Google Europe has a few really brilliant technologists who think outside the box as well.

Moreover, there is a requirement that every applicant organisation must employ at least one professional journalist. This makes sense if you want to keep the money within the existing sector. But did the original Google employ journalists? Did fledgling Facebook or Twitter? I would think that at times, journalism innovation in fact thrives in non-journalistic environments, among data experts, user interface designers, sophisticated news consumers, or advanced scientists.

EU research and innovation context

Finally, if you compare the DNI to the European Commission’s flawed Horizon 2020 (H2020) research and innovation programme, more questions come up. For instance, where the EU has eventually decided to fund the full cost of projects, Google will require at least 30% co-funding from the applicant (with the exception of the DNI’s small-scale prototype projects). Again, this is understandable at first glance, because the financial commitment is supposed to guarantee the grantee’s full buy-in. But the downside is that many ailing news organisations might not be willing or able to afford the 30%, while industry outsiders in academia, media NGOs, or start-ups with potentially brilliant ideas may have even less money to invest.

Also, in contrast to H2020, travel costs are not eligible, which means that in the absence of a chance for regular or at least kick-off meetings in person (never mind Google’s beloved tele-conferencing options), there will not be much cross-border and cross-cultural teamwork going on. If H2020 and its predecessors have achieved anything, it is that they set up a gigantic, interdisciplinary knowledge transfer system between researchers and industry experts in different EU Member States, which is facilitated by many (I concede: perhaps sometimes too many) face-to-face workshops and conferences. DNI, on the other hand, may breed closed shops and stabilise what Wolfgang Blau called European media’s “over-investment in the nation state”.

Sense of purpose

I do hope, though, that my take is too pessimistic, and that by the time the first round of grantees present their achievements, I will be proven wrong. But for the time being, I am going with a recent admonishment of the technology sector by US President Obama: “The tech community is more creative, more innovative, more collaborative and open to new ideas than any sector on earth. But sometimes what’s missing is purpose. To what end are we doing this? Is there a way for us to harness this incredible set of tools you’re developing for more than just cooler games or a quicker way for my teenage daughters to send pictures to each other?” In the same vein, it would be a terrible waste if the DNI were not stimulating the European news ecosystem to develop a radically new sense of purpose.

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Please see this post by Vincent Peyrègne for some additional details on media related intitatives within the H2020 programme.