Holding Our Applause for the Google News Initiative

I was invited to the Google News Initiative event in New York this week. Among many other things, they revealed a series of initiatives to help publishers increase subscribers, with an eye toward building a better economic model for journalism. This is something we have repeatedly asked for, so I have to consider it a positive and meaningful announcement. But until it is actually implemented and we see what kind of commitment Google has to the effort, I am going to hold my applause.

The announcement included Subscribe with Google, which will merge Google’s stored user info with publishers’ subscription forms, making subscribing to the news a pretty seamless effort for readers. They also discussed sharing data to identify possible subscribers, as well as other tools to help identify and onboard new subscribers.

I am pleased that they’re willing to share data and to help us monetize our content. But the fact is, we won’t know if it’s enough until we see our digital audience revenue grow. News readership is higher than it’s ever been (and it’s growing fast), but we are paddling against a platform tide where readers have been conditioned to expect digital news content for “free.” Those days must come to an end.

Another less obvious part of this effort will be helping publishers identify who will not be a potential subscriber and serve that user more ads — so that the publishers get paid one way or another. While some believe the advertising ecosystem is broken and unworkable, we need to more deeply explore the digital advertising experiences of our readers and improve efforts to sustain that revenue stream. Subscriptions may be the wave of the future for news publishers, but we still have great advertising products that pay a lot of the bills.

As we move toward focusing on reader revenue, I admit that I do have concerns about creating a world of haves and have-nots. If we are creating an exclusive model for participation, there must be other solutions offered that allow for wider access to information. Our economy is already so widely divided, and our industry needs to serve all people, regardless of their ability to support us. We cannot have only one revenue stream if we wish to truly serve our communities. At the same time, we don’t want to create a system that allows only news organizations with readership in the millions to survive. It’s the small community newspapers serving hundreds and thousands of people that are the lifeblood of not only our industry, but our democracy, and we need a way to sustain them even if their readers can’t pay enough.

Another part of the announcement was a new fund, the Google News Initiative, to help combat fake news. The $300 million fund will be used to create tools to help curb the fake news problem. Again, I applaud the steps being taken to deal with such an enormous problem, but I am certain that these efforts alone will not be enough.

I have long said that the best remedy to fake news is real news. Therefore, it follows that sustaining real news through real efforts to monetize content is the answer to the fake news problem. There are options I’ve proposed to reward real news that adhere to industry-accepted standards of accuracy and verifiable information. The simplest way to start, however, is by uplifting content from news sources that employ and pay real reporters.

Second, the $300 million fund is equal to only 1 percent of what our industry has lost in revenue over the past 10 years. A one-time, in-kind funded effort spread over three years pales in comparison to the impact the tech giant has had on our business. This is not enough.

We recognize the effort here, but what we’re looking for is a better business relationship with Google. What they’re offering now may be positive, but it is also yet another example of Google unilaterally handing down terms and conditions that our industry must accept. This is why I’ve repeatedly called for legislation that would allow us to sit down and talk seriously about real business solutions that would truly sustain high-quality journalism. Without the ability to negotiate terms, together, for the betterment of the news industry, we’ll only ever be playing catchup instead of developing truly sustaining solutions.

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