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

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

News publishers have been begging and/or threatening Google for the better part of a decade now, trying to convince the company to compensate them for the news that it carries in its search products. And for all of those years, Google has been adamantly refusing to do so — until now, that is. On Thursday, the search giant announced that it is launching a new product later this year focused on “high quality” news, and as part of that, it will be paying a select group of publishers in a number of countries for access to their content, including access to news stories that sit behind paywalls. According to a number of news reports, the company has already signed deals with leading media outlets in Germany, Australia, and Brazil, including Schwartz Media, Diarios Associados, and Der Spiegel. Google hasn’t said whether it is negotiating with or has signed agreements with any US-based publishers.

Google’s blog post on the announcement, and tweets by chief executive Sundar Pichai, tried to make it sound as though this is just another in a long line of helping hands the company has offered to the media industry. Google News vice-president Brad Bender said it would “build on the value we already provide through search and our ongoing efforts with the Google News Initiative,” and Pichai said “for decades we have worked with publishers to grow audiences and build value [and] we continue that progress today.” And 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, and has vowed repeatedly it would never do so (its argument has always been that it sends publishers traffic, and that this should be as good as money). When Spain tried to force it to pay, Google removed the country from its News service, and during the European Union’s discussion of new copyright legislation, hinted it might do the same for the EU.

As CJR pointed out in a feature on the more than $500 million in funding that Google and Facebook have provided to the media industry, what eventually became the Google News Initiative started as a way of placating news publishers in Belgium and France who were upset at having their content “stolen” by the search company. After being targeted by lawsuits and regulatory pressure, Google promised to help publishers figure out how to use the internet to monetize their content through ads and subscriptions, as opposed to having Google pay them, and it created a fund in both countries to help finance such efforts via grants and fellowship programs. The funding was rolled into the Digital News Initiative in 2015, and then it and the Google News Lab were combined and renamed the Google News Initiative in 2018.

So what changed Google’s mind on paying publishers for content? It’s possible that Pichai or co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had an epiphany, and decided that they needed to do a 180-degree turn from their previous position. But it also seems likely that the company can sense the mood in the US and elsewhere — the feeling (justified or not) that Google and its fellow giants have helped to kill the media industry by taking all the advertising revenue. France ordered the company to negotiate with publishers earlier this year, and Australia signaled that it may do the same. Germany has been trying to get Google to pay for news content for years. 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 then to throw publishers some cash?

Whether Google’s change of heart will have any real impact on the media industry remains to be seen. The details of the new product are unknown, but it seems likely it will look something like the dedicated “high quality” news tab that Facebook launched last year, for which it also pays certain publishers. While this may be a philosophical victory, it probably hasn’t made a life-altering difference to any of the companies involved (including Facebook). That’s because most of the publishers the social network has signed deals with are the usual industry-leading suspects — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Bloomberg, etc. — none of whom really need the money the way smaller or more local players do. Will Google’s new product have anything for them? Unknown. Either way, the amount of money involved is not going to put much of a dent in Google’s massive bank account, and if it gets some favorable publicity for its beneficence, presumably it will have been 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,” said University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan. A former Google staffer said that while the journalistic projects the company undertook were often worthwhile, the result was 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 its dominance or market share, “he can say ‘Actually, we do pay news publishers for their work — many millions of dollars every year.'” But the act of choosing who gets to be paid and who gets included in the new product is fraught, Benton says. “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? What about your tweets?”

Picking winners: Google’s decision got less-than-glowing reviews from two veteran media-industry watchers. Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at 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’s journalism school (which has also received funding from Facebook) said that the news about paying for content “sounds like Google will pick the winners. Is that what you really wanted, journalists?”

Other notable stories:

The Los Angeles Times is moving to settle a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by six Black, Hispanic and female journalists at the paper contending that the under-representation of people of color there is a result of longstanding discriminatory pay practices. The civil complaint, filed in California Superior Court in San Bernardino County, outside Los Angeles, is dated June 4 but has only just surfaced in court records. A corporate spokeswoman for the L.A. Times told NPR 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, who covers television, and Bettina Boxall, a leading environmental writer. Both joined the paper in the 1980s and allege they earn far less than white and male peers with less experience. Braxton is Black; Boxall is female.

The success of The Daily Wire, the website run by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, on Facebook is mind-boggling. The site has a small staff and primarily aggregates content from Twitter and other news outlets. Typically, its articles are very short, usually less than 500 words, and contain no original reporting. And yet, last month, The Daily Wire was the seventh-ranked publisher on Facebook, according to the analytics service NewsWhip, with a reach equal to the New York Times. Popular Information has discovered a network of large Facebook pages that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire. These pages, some of which have over 2 million followers, do not disclose a business relationship with The Daily Wire. But they all post content from The Daily Wire ten or more times each day at the exact same time. In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, a Facebook spokesperson said it investigated the behavior of these pages and found no violation of Facebook’s rules.

This week, New York University’s First Amendment Watch released “A Citizen’s Guide to Recording the Police” a primer for amateur videographers on the rights they are entitled to in these encounters. The guide explains why, under most circumstances, the police can neither seize nor demand to view such recordings — though some may try — and it provides case-law examples to back up its assertions. About three-fifths of the U.S. population lives in states where federal appeals courts have recognized a First Amendment right to record the police in public, the guide says. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled directly on the issue. That means legal protections aren’t nailed down everywhere, says Margaret Sullivan. Yet the outlook is good: “Given the resounding support so far for this First Amendment protection, 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 the independent news website Al-Manassa, was arrested in Cairo on Wednesday evening and later released on bail. Younis was arrested by police officers claiming to be members of the General Authority for Censorship of Works of Art, which is attached to the interior ministry. After searching the website’s offices and seizing cameras and computers, they took her to a police station in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. According to Prosecution, Younis is accused of operating a platform that facilitates cybercrimes, operating a website without permission from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, violating the copyright under intellectual property law along with the ‘unjust use’ of the information system network and telecommunications technology.

New York magazine looks at a story published by the Washington Post that has been getting a lot of criticism in media circles. The article described how a woman wore blackface makeup to a Halloween party in 2018 at the house of a Post cartoonist, where she was criticized by other 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. The Post wrote the story almost two years after the incident because one of the guests who confronted the woman contacted the paper and described the encounter. “No one I’ve spoken with at the Post can figure out why we published this story,” said one prominent reporter at the paper. “We blew up this woman’s life for no reason.”

Facebook announced Thursday that it would introduce a notification screen warning users if they try to share content that’s more than 90 days old. They’ll be given the choice to “go back” or to click through if they’d still like to share the story knowing that it isn’t fresh. Facebook acknowledged that old stories shared out of their original context play a role in spreading misinformation. The social media company said “news publishers in particular” have expressed concern about old stories being recirculated as though they’re breaking news. “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,” Facebook Vice President of Feed and Stories John Hegeman wrote on the company’s blog.

“News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?,” a new report published Wednesday by Penelope Muse Abernathy and her research program at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The 124-page report draws from 15 years of data it has assembled that track newspapers, community digital news sites and — new this year — 950 ethnic media and 1,400 public broadcasting stations. Since the fall of 2018, the report says 300 more newspapers have failed, bringing the death toll to 2,100, almost 25% of the 9,000 newspapers that were being published 15 years ago. The number of communities that had their own newspapers in 2004 and now have no original reporting whatsoever, in print or digitally, has grown to 1,800 from 1,300

Verizon said on Thursday it is pulling advertising on Facebook and Instagram until the company “can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable.” On Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League released an open letter that mentioned, in part, that it had found an advertisement for Verizon “appearing next to a video from the conspiracy group QAnon drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric.” It comes as marketers including Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and REI have also said they plan to pause advertising on the platforms. Last week, a group of six organizations called on Facebook advertisers to pause their spending on the social media platform during the month of July. The groups — 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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