Bowing to pressure, Google says it will pay publishers for news

For the better part of a decade, publishers have been begging (or threatening) Google, seeking compensation for the news they provide on its platform. And for all of those years, Google has adamantly refused—until now. On Thursday, Google announced that, later this year, it will introduce a new product focused on “high quality” news and, as part of that, it will pay a select group of publishers, including for access to stories that sit behind paywalls. According to news reports, Google has already signed deals with leading outlets in Germany, Australia, and Brazil, including Schwartz Media, Diarios Associados, and Der Spiegel. (Google hasn’t said whether it’s negotiating or has signed agreements with any publishers in the United States.)

Google’s announcement implied that this was the latest in a long line of overtures it’s made to the media industry. “For decades we have worked with publishers to grow audiences and build value,” Sundar Pichai, the CEO, tweeted. “We continue that progress today.” It’s true that the Google News Initiative has given journalists, media companies, and industry groups tens of millions of dollars. But it’s also true that Google has never paid publishers directly for news; rather, it’s vowed repeatedly that it would never do so. The argument has always been that Google sends publishers traffic, which is basically as good as money.

Some have disagreed. In 2014, after Spain tried to force Google to pay for news, the company removed the country from its news service. In 2018, while the European Union discussed new copyright legislation, Google hinted it might do the same for all of Europe. As I pointed out at the time, what eventually became the Google News Initiative got its start as a way of placating publishers in Belgium and France who were upset at having their content “stolen,” as they put it. After being targeted by lawsuits and regulatory pressure, Google promised to help publishers figure out how to use the internet to monetize their news, and created a fund in both countries to help finance those efforts through grants and training. That funding was rolled into the Digital News Initiative, and eventually combined with the Google News Lab, renamed the Google News Initiative in 2018. The plan was never to pay news organizations for their articles.

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So what changed Google’s mind? It’s possible that Pichai or Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had an opinion-reversing epiphany. But it seems more likely that the company sensed it had no choice. Earlier this year, France ordered Google to negotiate with publishers; Australia signaled that it may do the same. Germany has been trying to get Google to pay for news for a while. Regulators in Europe and in North America have been talking publicly about antitrust investigations into Google and Facebook because of their size and market dominance. What better way to deflect some heat than to throw publishers some cash?

Whether Google’s commitment will have any real impact on the media industry remains to be seen, of course. The details of the new product are unknown; it seems reasonable to assume it will be something like the “high quality” news tab that Facebook launched last year, for which it also pays certain publishers. There may be a philosophical victory here, but it probably won’t make a life-altering difference to any of the companies involved, as the tech giants continue to eat up all of the internet’s advertising revenue. And on Facebook, for one, most of the publishers with deals are the usual industry-leading suspects: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg—none of which need the money the way that smaller, local players do.

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Will Google’s new product offer anything to community newspapers? Google doesn’t have to sweat it either way, since the amount of money involved won’t put a dent in its massive bank account—and if it receives favorable publicity for its beneficence, the whole thing was worth it.

Here’s more on Google and paying for news:

  • Conflict of interest: A number of journalists, academics, and media industry insiders told CJR in 2018 that Google’s funding of journalism is problematic, since it raises the potential for some significant conflicts of interest. “Increasingly, journalistic institutions are feeding the beasts that are starving them,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, said. A former Google staffer said the company’s efforts meant that “a bunch of well-meaning people with good intentions get the money, and slowly they get sucked into a corporate machine that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”
  • A PR effort: Josh Benton, of Nieman Journalism Lab, says the licensing announcement is “more about PR than the needs of the news industry.” The payments mean that the next time an executive gets hauled in front of a congressional committee, upset about Google’s market share, “He can say ‘Actually, we do pay news publishers for their work—many millions of dollars every year.’” The act of choosing who gets to be paid and who gets included in the new product is fraught, Benton adds. “Do they owe me money for including my old blog from the early 2000’s? It’s in Google’s index too. How about Breitbart? How about The Daily Stormer or Stormfront?”
  • Picking winners: Google’s decision got less-than-glowing reviews from two veteran media watchers: Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York (which has received funding from Facebook), said that “publishers cashed in their political capital to wish for this [but] it won’t rescue them.” And Dan Gillmor, who co-founded the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University (which has also received funding from Facebook) said the news “sounds like Google will pick the winners. Is that what you really wanted, journalists?”

 

Other notable stories:

  • The Los Angeles Times has moved to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by six Black, Hispanic, and female journalists contending that under-representation of people of color in the newsroom is a result of longstanding discriminatory pay practices. A corporate spokeswoman for the Times told NPR on Thursday afternoon that a settlement had been reached and that it would be submitted for the court’s preliminary approval “as soon as practical.” The lead complainants include journalists who have contributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage at the LA Times, such as Greg Braxton and Bettina Boxall. Both joined the paper in the eighties and allege that they earn far less than white, male peers.
  • Judd Legum, who publishes Popular Information, a progressive newsletter, says that he has figured out why The Daily Wire, a website run by the right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, gets tremendous play on Facebook. The Daily Wire runs short articles with virtually no original reporting, but last month it was the seventh highest-ranked publisher on Facebook, according to an analytics service called NewsWhip, with a reach equal to the New York Times. Legum says he came across a network of pages that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire, pages that in some cases have more than two million followers; all post articles from the site at the same time. A Facebook spokesperson told Legum that the behavior of these pages doesn’t violate any rules.
  • Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post media columnist, writes about a recently-released “Citizen’s Guide to Recording the Police,” published by New York University’s First Amendment Watch. Citing case law examples, the guide explains that police officers are normally prohibited from seizing or demanding to view footage in which they appear, including at protests. About three-fifths of the US population lives in states where federal appeals courts have recognized a First Amendment right to record the police in public. That means legal protections aren’t nailed down everywhere, Sullivan observes, but the outlook is good: “It seems highly likely that the remaining federal appeals courts would reach the same conclusion if the issue appears on their docket.”
  • Nora Younis, the editor of Al-Manassa, an independent news site, was arrested in Cairo on Wednesday evening and later released on bail. According to Reporters Without Borders, Younis was targeted by police officers for claiming to be a member of the General Authority for Censorship of Works of Art. Officers searched her office, seizing the cameras and computers, then hauled Younis into the station. She now stands accused of operating a platform that facilitates cybercrimes, operating a website without permission from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, violating intellectual property law, and “unjust use” of the information system network and telecommunications technology.
  • New York magazine looks at a story published by the Washington Post, about a woman who wore blackface makeup to a Halloween party in 2018 at the house of a Post cartoonist, where she was criticized by party-goers and eventually left. The woman, who did not previously have a public profile, was fired from her job after the story was published. “No one I’ve spoken with at the Post can figure out why we published this story,” a prominent Post reporter said. “We blew up this woman’s life for no reason.”
  • On Thursday, in a blog post, John Hegeman, Facebook’s vice president for Feed and Stories, said that the company will introduce a notification screen, warning users if they try to share material that’s more than ninety days old. People will then be given a choice to “go back” or to click through if they’d still like to share. Old stories that are shared without their original context can play a role in spreading misinformation, Hegeman acknowledged; others have warned about this for some time, including news publishers. “Over the past several months, our internal research found that the timeliness of an article is an important piece of context that helps people decide what to read, trust and share,” Hegeman wrote.
  • Penelope Abernathy, a media researcher at the University of North Carolina has published “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?,” a new report that draws from fifteen years of data tracking the death of local and regional newspapers and other news sites, including public broadcasting stations. According to Abernathy’s research, since the fall of 2018, three hundred newspapers have failed, bringing the total to twenty-one hundred, or almost twenty-five percent of the nine thousand newspapers that were being published in the US fifteen years ago. The number of communities with their own newspapers in 2004 and now have no original reporting whatsoever, in print or digitally, has grown to eighteen hundred.
  • On Thursday, John Nitti, Verizon’s chief media officer, released a statement: his company is pulling its advertising from Facebook and Instagram until Facebook, Inc “can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable.” According to CNBC, the Anti-Defamation League recently released an open letter to companies with ads on Facebook, observing that an ad for Verizon had appeared next to a video from the conspiracy group QAnon, which uses “hateful and antisemitic rhetoric.” Verizon joins a growing group of advertisers who are boycotting Facebook, including Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and REI. Last week, a group of six organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Color of Change, Free Press, and Common Sense—asked “large Facebook advertisers to show they will not support a company that puts profit over safety.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.