Tow Center

Do technology companies care about journalism?

March 27, 2019
Photo: Adobe Stock

On Tuesday, Google announced it would partner with McClatchy to fund three, new local news entities in communities of less than 500,000 people. This marks a change in how quickly the news business is being absorbed into the fringes of large technology businesses. For the first time, a major technology company is working directly with news executives to set up a local news operation, which it proposes to fund.

Craig Forman, chief executive of McClatchy describes the effort as a true “collaboration” in which the McClatchy team will work with experts at Google. Though Google “is helping support the effort financially,” Forman wrote in a press release on the Google blog, “the sites will be 100 percent McClatchy owned and operated and McClatchy will maintain sole editorial control and ownership of the content.

Just in case we are in any doubt, he reiterates that “Google will have no input or involvement in any editorial efforts or decision making.”

It is hard to know what it will look like to have experts from Google collaborating with McClatchy staff without any editorial input. Everyone who has built a successful news product online knows that the technical architecture, tools, software, and analytics applied to journalism inevitably end up shaping aspects of editorial content. In fact, one of the most common errors in newsrooms is the failure to properly integrate “product” into the newsroom, or to properly take into account the technological environment into which they are publishing.

No company has done more to fund and support journalism over the past decade than Google. It is almost impossible to attend a news conference, hear about experimentation in newsrooms, or even look at journalism research without seeing Google’s name on the funding credits. The expansion into the US of Google’s Digital News Initiative, which has spent more than a hundred million Euros on news innovations in Europe, has so far included high-profile investments into Report for America—and now the McClatchy initiative.

Because so little advertising money remains available to publications, and reader revenue has not met that shortfall, the expensive job of innovation in newsrooms increasingly means asking “What would Google want?”—influencing what newsrooms choose to develop, from virtual reality, to voice skills, to photo libraries.

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But to question Google is now frowned upon in many quarters in journalism. The company has received markedly better press than some of its competitors, notably Facebook. This is in part because it is more mature, and handles relations with the press far better (it has not tried to hide its own influence campaigns, for instance). It also spends more money. The extra money Google provides to journalism is not directly buying favor or dampening dissent, but it is certainly making news CEOs and editors I speak to put Google in a subtly different category from other platforms. Their attitude is that “Google gets it.” In the earliest days of Google News, when I was in charge of editorial for the Guardian’s websites and digital products, we benefited from a close relationship with Google when it came to understanding how to optimize article metadata for their search algorithms. It is easy to see day-to-day “help” as beneficial to journalism if you yourself are directly benefiting.

But Google’s foray into local journalism is not just a matter of help. When the company launched the DNI in Europe, it was a direct response to pressure by EU regulators. The money was allocated from a marketing budget, and amounted to a lobbying exercise. Now Google is moving its direct funding efforts into the US. It does so ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and just as the Democratic field is being assembled. For the first time in a presidential contest, regulating technology platforms is registering as an issue for the electorate and is on the agenda of at least one serious candidate, Elizabeth Warren, and has long been an area of interest for another, Amy Klobuchar.

Those who would rethink anti-trust law in order to break up the world’s Facebooks, Amazons, and Alphabets (Google’s holding company) are gaining traction. But the think tank which pioneered much of this work, the Open Markets Initiative, lost its perch at the New America Foundation in 2017 when it caused tension with major funder: Google. But who would suggest that Google’s increased funding of US journalism is at all related to the first major initiatives to regulate technology platforms? This sounds like a conspiracy theory so rich it should be relentlessly promoted on YouTube.

The suddenness of technology companies caring about the financial stability of journalism is not at all coincidental. As my colleague Mathew Ingram reported recently, Facebook assembled its own local news conference in Denver recently (conference WiFi password: m0vefast). Tim “Apple” Cook spent several minutes of his opening speech during the company’s semi-annual marketing presentation last week proclaiming his love of journalism before launching Apple News+, a product which reduces your $8,000 magazine bill to $10.

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Having spent a lot of time with news executives who work for technology companies, I can say there are plenty of people who are knowledgeable about—and care about—journalism in those companies. Many of them are smart and accomplished journalists who have a genuine zeal for improving journalism. But they are relegated to marginal departments. The core of platform companies is software engineering; they are at the core of our business we are not at the core of theirs. Miles away from the ritzy conferences like Newsgeist and the meetings for Facebook Journalism Project, in the central loci of technology businesses, executives generally don’t care that much about journalism. They see it as the Pluto in their solar system—a part of what they do, but rather small and very far away.  They care about journalism in the same way I care about clean water and aircraft safety—deeply and often—but this does not qualify me to be involved in its development.

Facebook, Apple, and Google do things that journalists should be investigating, not profiting from. Google negotiates with the US Department of Defense—albeit to the horror of half of its employees—and tried to cover it up, Facebook underpays and traumatizes employees who deal with blacklisting offensive content , Apple works with regimes that routinely jail journalists and construct ethnic concentration camps . All three have strategies for managing the press, and they publish very little data about what happens on their platforms or what the effect of it is, making tech reporting a vital form of accountability.

While Google’s partnership with McClatchy is unprecedented, non-journalistic organizations taking on the role of publishers and funding journalism directly is not new.  What’s new is the industry-wide acceptance of funding from Google and Facebook, amid extremis in the funding of independent journalism at a local level in particular.. Individuals who have made money from technology have sometimes used it to support journalism; Jeff Bezos has been hailed for his salvation and resurrection of The Washington Post, Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective is supporting and expanding The Atlantic, Craig Newmark (who founded Craigslist) funds journalism schools and research, including parts of both CJR and the Tow Center.

In all these operations, transparency and a commitment to editorial independence from funding makes for somewhat comfortable relationships. But when it comes to corporate interests, journalists have to be alert to agendas in conflict with their own. For technology to support journalism in a totally independent way—more than one way, in fact—is possible, for the record: It can be done through taxation and an expansion of civic media. It can be done through payments into arms-length endowments administered by separate bodies. It can even be done by changing the incentive structures on their own platforms to elevate and return more money to newsrooms.

Whether it can be done with the direct system of patronage Google is offering remains highly unlikely.

Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.