Q&A: Richard Gingras, VP of News at Google

The Idea spoke to the leader of Google’s news products, who offered some thinking behind the recent launch of the Google News Iniative and argued why platforms shouldn’t be blamed for publishing’s lost ad dollars in the modern information economy.

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The Idea: Tell us about your background and your role. What does it mean to be the vice president for news at Google?

RG: My entire career has been in the media space and largely in the development of digital experiences. The first interactive news experience I created was done by teletext in 1980. So it goes back quite a bit. But my role as Vice President of News in our Search organization has two parts.

One, I work very closely with our product teams on how we present news to Google users, whether that be via Google Search or Google News or other news experiences that we have (for instance, smart home or audio devices).

Secondly, I oversee product efforts that can enable a healthier ecosystem for news on the open internet. That includes various efforts with the objective of: How do we enable news organizations to do quality journalism in the digital age?

When I’m here at my desk in Mountain View, I’m typically focused on working internally with our various teams on our various product development efforts. But I also spend a massive amount of time away from Mountain View, collaborating with publishers, speaking with publishers around the world, and working with the journalism community around the world to help ensure that we understand the challenges and opportunities that they’re confronting so we can design our projects and our products to deliver the most value. That was the focus of the Digital News Initiative in Europe, and now globally with the Google News Initiative. To me, the foundation point is collaboration. How can we work closely with the communities of publishing and journalism to make sure we’re doing the right thing?

Richard Gingras, VP of News at Google

I also spend a lot of time working with the public policy community to make sure that we’re providing policymakers with the information they need to understand Google’s objectives, to understand our efforts, to understand how we do our work. Not surprisingly, by the way, that means I travel a ton. My admin noted awhile back that in the last three years, I’ve been averaging fourteen days a year at 30,000 feet. Which I sometimes joke makes me absolutely immune from any possible medical malady, OR, I am a walking, talking, toxic timebomb waiting to happen. It’s been an itneresting few years.

I’m deeply passionate about what we’re trying to accomplish here. I came to Google because I believe that Google is the best possible place I could work to enable further progress in the journalism ecosystem, and to create that healthy ecosystem for quality journalism. And I do feel extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to play the role that I play.

Through Google News Initiative, launched last month, what kind of engagement can publishers expect from you or people in similar roles?

Google search and the value of Google Search is dependent on there being a rich, open web. The same is true of our ad platforms, which some 2 million publishers use. Our success with our ad platforms is based on the success of publishers. We succeed when they succeed. When you look at Google’s efforts, it’s important to understand our motivations. Yes, we do this because it’s a good idea, but we also do it because, again, given the nature of our business, our objectives are fairly in tune with publishers’. We both need a vibrant open web and a vibrant open ecosystem of knowledge to be truly effective.

I have long been extraordinarily optimistic about the future of news. But that optimism is entirely based on a single point: How can we, as an industry — not just Google — collaborate and drive innovation? This is a dramatically different world we’re living in; it’s a dramatically different publishing industry that we’re working in. The only way for that to survive and thrive is to continue to innovate at every — whether that’s via business models, for example through moving towards subscriptions; whether it’s through understanding the nature of the relationship to the community that a news publication is looking to serve; whether it’s about underlying technological capabilities like AMP; whether it’s how we regain and maintain trust and credibility through efforts like The Trust Project; whether that’s through creating new forms of immersive storytelling; or using better tools to do more things with data journalism. All of these things, in a sense, address different facets of how do we work with the industry to enable innovation and get to that point of evolving success for quality journalism in a digital age — and make my current optimism indeed the case.

GNI was launched as a three-year, $300 million project. What will happen with the Initiative and its components after those three years?

I think Google News Initiative is more of a philosophy and a set of objectives than it is a hard-coded plan. We have to keep in mind that we are going to see evolution and we’re going to continue to see change. For example, ten years ago, we didn’t even think about social networks, and now social networks are a significant component of the ecosystem. Five years ago, you could count the number of news brands on the internet with a paywall on a couple of hands. Now, paywalls are a trend.

From our perspective, these efforts will continue for three years and beyond to the extent necessary to continue to provide that extra focus to make sure we have that healthy ecosystem for quality journalism such that quality news organizations can indeed sustain their efforts, and continue to provide the value that we all feel is important to our societies.

What about the Google Initiatives are you most excited about?

When I did some of the early briefings about the Subscribe with Google project, one of the major publishers I met with said it is an extraordinarily comprehensive and thoughtful set of tools. And my answer to him is that that’s only true because we collaborated with the industry. We’re not experts in subscription offers for news content. We [Google] don’t do that — that’s not part of our business. So it was very important to engage — deeply and collaboratively — to understand the nuances and reflect that as best we could in the tools that we build and provide.

So what I’m excited about is the fact that the Google News Initiative is holistic. I’ve long been saying that success will be found to the extent that we step back and innovate in every facet. How do we think about storytelling? How do we think about trust? How do we think about business models? How do we think about disinformation? How do we think about evolving data journalism?

What I found so exciting is that we have efforts pretty much against every one of those facets. We’ve gone beyond something that just I talk about to where Google, in it’s own way as a technology provider in this ecosystem that we’re in, is supporting those questions with our own efforts and technological implementations. It’s not going to be one thing that sustains journalism. There will be a certain thing that’s necessary to focus on now, but the truth is, innovation around every aspect is key and that’s an extraordinarily important thing to keep in mind.

News Corp and others have floated the idea of platforms (including Google) paying carriage fees to publishers for producing the content that helps Google generate ad revenue. Is this feasible?

There is this often cited notion that the disruption in the news industry was caused by Google and/or Facebook. And that is simply factually incorrect. Let’s take a step back for a second; in 1985, if I were a subscriber to the Dallas Morning News, that was the internet of my community. It wasn’t interactive, but I used it for every bit of information I needed to live my life in Dallas. When I turned 16 and my dad wanted to buy me a used car, he went to the classifieds section of the newspaper. When my mom was looking for recipes for Sunday night dinner, she went to the food section of the newspaper. When I was out of college looking for a job, I went to the classifieds in the newspaper. When I wanted to go to the movies, I went to the movie listings and read some movie reviews. Those behaviors don’t happen today because of the richness of the internet. If I’m in England and looking for a used car, I’ll go to Gumtree. If I’m in the U.S. looking for a job, I’ll go to Monster.com. You used different resources, and as those behaviors shifted to other companies, so did the advertising dollars. It’s a different information marketplace. And obviously, that has changed many things. But as I’ve noted, there are many ways that people have found success in that environment.

Yes, at Google we were very fortunate to have developed a very powerful and popular search engine and, with it, the concept of search ads. But to suggest that somehow there’s a different rationale for how this (compared to the examples above) happened is spurious. It’s not factual. I get very cautious when someone talks about carriage fees or licenses, because what are we trying to support that can’t be supported in the organic environment or in the organic marketplace of the web? It’s always important that that be the first consideration. In general — and I think most folks would agree — that first and foremost, particularly in the area of journalism where you don’t want it to be unduly influenced by any source of funding, it is highly preferable to have it be naturally, healthily, and fully supported in the organic environments of expression and the organic environments of the marketplace for information.

You’ve been involved with projects surrounding free expression in the past. For example, you’re on the board of the First Amendment Coalition. What do you think Google’s role is in supporting free expression and the notion of equal access to quality journalism?

I think they’re very closely related. Often, people are obviously curious and sometimes concerned about the changes in our culture and the changes in our environment that have happened over the last 25 years. If you want to step back and say, what really did happen? The internet happened. The internet put a printing press in anyone’s hands — that’s an extraordinary thing. I can look at that as an American, and say that that’s the first amendment coming to life. It’s lowered the cost of access and production such that anyone can share their thoughts with anyone in the world, irrespective of whether that is high quality journalism or spurious misinformation. As a strong believer in the first amendment, I often point out that to believe in free expression, you have to accept that there indeed will be information out there that each and everyone of us in our own way will find uncomfortable.

That is the nature of the internet. It is an extraordinary environment for free expression. And that does sometimes mean dealing with it’s challenges. With regard to Google Search, our objective is to surface the most authoritative information we can find about any query. But the truth is that Google Search is a search tool. It’s not the oracle of what is acceptable or unacceptable expression. It should allow you, depending on the nature of the query, to find anything that’s findable in the corpus of legal expression. From a journalist’s perspective, you want to be able to dig into that corpus of expression — into the dark corners as well as the well-lighted corners.

How do we, as the world evolves, manage that concept of free expression and manage how we — whether they be in the institutions of press or the government, or for companies like Google or Google Search in that environment — evolve to address those challenges, and make sure that our societies continue to be healthy and our democracies continue to be open and thriving?

Now, to our customary question: what is the most interesting thing that you’ve seen from a media outlet or program other than your own?

There’s been a lot of discussion and concern about information deserts, particularly in local communities. I am excited about the rather significant growth that we’re seeing in emerging purely-digital players in those communities: new news organizations which are springing up into communities which are springing up into communities and finding success.

I can look here in the United States and pick out The Texas Tribune, which is providing coverage at the state capital level. I can look in Eastern Canada there’s a fascianting small chain of digital properties called Village Media. Jeff Elgie, the CEO, has profitable, successful news products in eight communities in Eastern Canada — communities have local identities, and he’s built news products to suit those communities.

I look in Paris and I see Mediapart, founded by Edwy Plenel, out of Le Monde. His focus was very serious journalism and he had a clear mission right from the start and he had a hard paywall right from the start. And he now has 150,000 paying subscribers, he’s profitable, and has 45 reporters on staff. I look at The Bristol Cable in the United Kingdom which is a new news site in Bristol that even churns out a print edition for what they do. It has been extraordinarily innovative in how they work with their community. This feeds into the kind of thinking of Jennifer Brandel at Hearken out of Chicago, who says that the future of a successful news organization is a news organization that embraces its communities in different ways. A news organization that reaches out, that has town halls, that understands what the community is interested in. And continuously engages with the audience, not just telling them what they should know, but engages with them to understand what it is they want to know. That builds very different bonds. In looking at those kinds of examples, I see the formative models of success that others can follow.

Again, I’m optimistic. And I get more optimistic when I see examples of success that I know others will be able to follow as the space evolves.

A version of this interview was originally published in the April 23rd edition of The Idea, Atlantic Media’s newsletter on everything new and innovative in digital media. To get The Idea in your inbox each week, subscribe here.

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