How do you finance a journalistic investigation?
Media patron GoogleHow the data company ensnares journalism
Anyone who does journalism on the Internet today is moving in the universe of Google. It starts with the writing of texts. No headline may be too short, no subheading too brittle, no key term may be misspelled, otherwise the text will slide down in the search results. Many articles are no longer written for the public, but for the Google algorithm, complains one editor-in-chief.
Google turns headlines into clicks, and clicks into advertising money. If you take the company together with other digital groups such as Facebook and Amazon, according to industry estimates, they now collect almost every second euro that is spent on advertising worldwide - online and offline.
Newspaper publishers have been complaining for years that the digital corporations are selling them from the feeding trough. For decades, advertising was one of the two pillars of journalism financing alongside subscription business. But that doesn't work properly online, because the central hubs for advertising are not the advertising departments of Axel Springer Verlag and Bertelsmann, but rather the servers of the platform groups.
Many media are therefore demanding a share of the advertising income from the online giant: if a search engine reproduces its content, even if only in the form of a link with a short text excerpt, it should pay for it. Google is vehemently resisting this.
The digital group as a media patron
But Google is not only a competitor and click maker for publishers, it is also a patron. In the midst of the corona pandemic, which caused the publishers heavy losses, the group was there with millions in aid. Just a few days ago, he announced a generous license deal with publishers all over the world, which should bring a total of one billion into the coffers. Part of the deal is that the publishers are not allowed to sue Google.
The fact that Google is generous towards the media is nothing new - in the last seven years the company has given away more than 200 million euros to European media. In the meantime, the News Initiative has even become a global undertaking, endowed with a further 300 million dollars. Most publishers are silent about the details of the unusual gift of money from Google.
We reported on this in more detail for the first time in 2018 in a series of articles on netzpolitik.org. We are now following up with a study. For months we studied what exactly the complex relationships between the group and the media industry look like. Today, “Medienmäzen Google” appears, financed by the DGB and the Otto Brenner Foundation.
For the study, we held more than two dozen conversations with digital journalists and top managers in German news media such as The mirror, Time online or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. How delicate the cooperation is can be seen from the fact that almost all interlocutors insisted on anonymity. “They pay very close attention to what is said about the cooperation,” explained a managing director as soon as we switched off the microphone.
A question of independence
"Even the appearance that the freedom of decision-making of the publishing house and editorial staff could be impaired should be avoided," says the German press code, and our study focuses on the question of independence.
The good news is that the media representatives surveyed emphasized that they are not aware of any case in which Google has attempted to directly influence reporting through the initiative. Google itself emphasizes that the allocation of funds is strictly separated from other areas of the group and that a jury, predominantly made up of external members, decided on the funding.
The bad news: Several of the journalists surveyed expressed concern that the funding from Google and the proximity to the company could lead to “bite inhibitions” and “self-censorship” among journalists.
The study identifies a particular challenge in the fact that the classic separation between editorial team and publishing house is becoming more permeable in the context of technology development projects: anyone who wants to develop innovations for journalism must involve editorial teams. In one case, journalists reporting on Google were even in charge of a Google-funded project.
Worry about corrupting closeness
The fear of corrupting proximity applies particularly to high or repeated funding, so that in particular a further normalization of Google as a sponsor is viewed critically. Because Google's generosity does not end with gifts of money for innovation projects.
The company also finances selected media fellowships for aspiring young journalists and free training courses with digital tools. In addition, the group is an omnipresent sponsor at industry events. The funding from Google makes some of the largest congresses in the media industry possible, such as the International Journalism Festival in Perugia or the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.
Google not only inscribes itself in the résumés of many young journalists, but also has a place at the table of familiar groups at conferences and congresses. The company is doing what it does best here: Google is once again becoming a platform, this time for the industry's debates on the future of journalism. As a result, the media forfeit their ability to reflect to some extent.
Gifts for major publishers
A data analysis of Google's media funding in Europe also shows that Google is creating an imbalance in the industry with its financial boon. The typical recipient of the money is an established, commercial, Western European publisher.
Of the 140 million that the group awarded as part of its Digital News Initiative between 2015 and 2019, three quarters went to commercial publishers, while only five percent went to non-profit media. The rest went to projects by individuals, research institutes, publicly funded media and non-journalistic organizations.
- The top 10 recipient countries of Google's DNI funds
- Most of Google's DNI money went to established commercial publishers
- What kind of innovations has Google encouraged?
- The top 5 recipient media for Google's DNI funding in Germany
The Google news initiative also distributed the money unevenly geographically: the overwhelming majority of the recipients are in Western Europe, with Germany in first place with around 21.5 million euros. In spite of the innovation narrative, the News Initiative is also not an economic stimulus program for journalistic startups. Most of the money went to companies that are over 20 years old.
The detailed analysis for Germany also shows that not only new journalistic start-ups and not-for-profit media, but also regional publishers are underrepresented. Only four of the 28 major projects funded in Germany with a volume of up to one million euros belong to regional publishers. The list of top recipient media is headed by the WirtschaftsWoche, the Deutsche Welle and the Handelsblattwho could each have received up to two million euros from Google.
The question remains: why is Google doing all this? The efforts to link own services such as Youtube and Subscribe with Google more closely with the News Initiative show that it is also about the marketing of products. It is already evident today that Google wants to become a kind of operating system for digital journalism.
But the political dimension is more important. If you ask the company what it's all about, it sounds like this: You wanted to clear up a “misunderstanding” between you and the publishers, says Google manager Madhav Chinnappa in an interview.
The misunderstanding? The publishers fought Google with all means for years. "We don't benefit from the traffic that Google generates for us - we are completely dependent on it," complained Axel Springer CEO Matthias Döpfner.
The newspaper publishers under the direction of Döpfner enforced an ancillary copyright law in Germany that was supposed to force Google to pay even for short snippets of text from the publishers, in Italy and France the media houses pushed for a tax on digital advertising. The controversial ancillary copyright finally made it into the EU reform of copyright law as Article 15, and most EU countries are currently working on its implementation. In short: Google has a political problem.
By reconstructing the genesis of Google's funding programs, we can show that they were created in the 2010s as a reaction to the increasing pressure from publishers in terms of media policy. Even before the Digital News Initiative, Google's first media fund was set up in France. He was there to end a debate about the participation of publishers in Google's advertising revenue and was negotiated with President François Hollande.
The most popular digital company among journalists
The media representatives we interviewed almost unanimously describe Google's initiatives as a PR measure that aims to mend the broken relationship with the media and avert regulation.
And indeed: Today, Google is the most popular among digital companies in the media industry, according to a study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University last year.
Of course, a study like ours cannot prove a causal relationship. However, not only monetary gifts to the publishers but also the generous sponsorship for journalism congresses and the promotion of young talent should have contributed to the good image
Google's funding for academic research could also have helped, even if it is not the focus of the current study. The aforementioned Oxford University survey financed the media industry's biggest sponsor: Google itself.
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