Getting Google and Publishers to Share Love — and Data

This last week, in three high-level publisher summits in Europe, I saw tangible progress toward realizing what I think is the most important single opportunity that publishers and platforms have together: sharing data to benefit first our users and then our businesses.

For years, I have been arguing to publishers — including those warring with Silicon Valley — that what they should seek from the platforms is not cash (that isn’t “our money” the platforms are earning) or raw traffic (look at how the pursuit of reach über alles has ruined journalism) or throttling technology companies through government intervention (new copyright laws and antitrust investigations are not investable business strategies).

Instead, we should seek data: information about people — their interests and behaviors — that helps us build relationships of relevance of value with them.

When I said this to publishers, they either didn’t understand or they argued that the platforms would never give data to us. To which I answered: “Have you asked?”

When I said this to the platforms, they would kvetch — rightly — that our demands were too vague to deal with. And besides, they’d finally say after a few beers: “Your guys wouldn’t know what to do with the data if we gave it to them.” True that. But then I’d reply: “So educate us.”

Well, over the last week, I have seen real progress in having publishers get specific about their requests and I have seen a willingness from — so far — Google to engage.

My trip began at a Distributed Content Summit in Berlin convened by Axel Springer — which has led the war against Google in Europe — with 25 media companies from around Europe. I was the only American representative, assigned to provoke discussion with American bluntness. I told the group that it was time to shift from war footing to business footing and that the responsibility lay with us to get specific with our requests: What data are we asking for? How will we use it to benefit our users? What will we do with it? How will it benefit us? How will it benefit the platforms? Springer’s executives smartly turned this charge into an assignment: that every workshop led by the brands should come back with a project or test to propose to the platforms.

Some of us took the fruits of this work to the next event: the second annual Newsgeist in Bilbao, at which Google brought together about 150 news leaders for an unconference on the future of news. At last year’s Newsgeist some of us arrived asking for something specific: an open-source version of what Facebook had just announced, Instant Articles. We got AMP (accelerated mobile pages) as a result. Great precedent; high bar.

In Bilbao, we convened one session on what Google could do for news (and vice versa) and on the final morning we had another, getting far more specific and useful, on what collaborative A/B tests we could imagine, building on the discussion from Berlin. Here’s what the group came up with:

  • How could Google use its knowledge about our users and our content to help us improve the recommendations we make to our users and thus their experience on our pages? We could also test how such data could improve conversion to subscription or membership, ad performance, and (when are we going to explore this opportunity?) commerce.
  • If publishers passed their subscription/membership data to Google and Facebook, how could the platforms improve users’ experience (and our business prospects) there? That is, if Google knew I were a subscriber to Springer’s Bild, then when I come to Google Search or News asking for Formula 1 news, shouldn’t Google give some priority to Bild’s coverage, which I’ve paid for? That answers a constant request from pay-walled publishers to recognize their disadvantage in SEO.
  • Obviously and especially in Europe, these ideas raise privacy concerns. The platforms could not pass over personally identifiable information. But they could pass over categorization of users: this is a user who belongs to a group that watches a lot of video or reads a lot of politics or tends to read long stories or looks at lots of short things in the morning, and so on. What that leads to is the need to build a framework for such categorization of users and content. If we build that together, it means that publishers could also share this data. And that answers Google’s plea that we not look only to Mountain View for help but also look to each other. (Coincidentally, German publishers just announced their own consortium to share what appears to be ad data to compete with Google and Facebook.)
  • Collaboratively improving recommendations for content begins to look similar to the function of the recirculation engines Taboola and Outbrain, which send our users off our sites to the most irritating clickbait imaginable (example above), getting the benefit of publishers’ data along the way. Every publisher I know hates the companies but loves the checks they send. It’s reach crack. Well, hmmm. Should publishers and platforms consider building their own, not-evil recirculation engine? Just asking. For some friends.
  • Just to round this out, I also renewed someone’s idea from last year’s Newsgeist Europe for an API to Google News, which would enable publishers to curate news (somebody once said: do what you do best and link to the rest) and also to see where their own news fits in clusters of others’. The problem is that we don’t fully understand our content (once getting data about a user’s habits or interests, we will have trouble finding the right content to match it).

Then came the next event on the European Future-of-News Love Tour (t-shirts coming): a news publishers day convened by Google Play in London, where we continued the discussion and where I saw that Google executives are serious about responding to publishers’ now-more-specific proposals. The answers may not always be yes because of practicality or competition (the platforms are companies). And as the discussion widens, better ideas may emerge. Great. The discussion is launched.

I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately — in writing here and in meetings and discussions anywhere I can — to bring peace to the kingdom between publishers and platforms, from the U.S. to Europe to Latin America. As a result, individual publishers or groups are coming to me suggesting they want their own war or manifesto or list of demands. I have been arguing in return that it would be far more productive to find areas of mutual benefit to have strategic impact on our businesses. It helps me in that argument when I can point to real signs of progress such as what I’ve witnessed this week.

It is also important to note that the discussion with platforms is — and can only — move forward when product is involved, not just marketing, PR, or business development. In Silicon Valley, product is everything. Some top engineers at Google are beginning to get involved in news products and I was delighted to meet one at the London Play event (I wish I’d seen more such representation in Bilbao, not just to show respect but to foster mutual understanding and collaboration). Google’s response to the war in Europe was to establish a Digital News Initiative, and much progress has followed: AMP, a new YouTube player and deal, Newsgeist, the Google News Lab. I’ve quibbled that these are marketing and comms initiatives. But on this trip, a Google exec set me straight and said that status changed when Google CEO Sundar Pichai made news a priority. (I learned elsewhere that the cool-kid way to say this is that news became a Google OKR.)

Meanwhile, down the road at the Facebook ranch…. News has long been a product priority there. Some of their best product-development talent has been working on things that have news at the core: Instant Articles and Facebook Live, to name two. So in product, Facebook has been ahead of Google but Google is catching up. In the arena of building relationships with publishers through events like those in Bilboa and London and groups like the Digital News Initiative, I’d say Facebook needs to catch up. (There was at least one session just about Facebook at Newsgeist.) There is much that Facebook can do to share data in similar ways and improve the experience and relationship of news brands and users on Facebook and off. Publishers can also make better use of Facebook to develop relationships, serve communities, and generate interest data there. I have more ideas about this that I’ll leave for another day.

In the end, this effort is not about warring are even about negotiation. This is about collaborating on the reinvention of news. What gives me the greatest hope after this European tour is that I saw the carcasses of many a sacred cow lining the road from Berlin to Bilbao.

I heard a surprising consensus that media’s reach strategy is a loser, or at least that we’ve lost it. Seeking audience and page views for their own sake does not build real value; it’s highly competitive; it rewards our worst instincts as editors and readers.

To replace it, many publishers are, of course, seeking consumer revenue through subscriptions and (I hope to see more of this) membership and commerce. As a result, they seek to build more valuable products that drive engagement. That’s a step in the right direction.

I was most impressed at Springer’s event in Berlin when most of the participants did not drag their heels in the hopes that they could fight content distribution and count on always driving audience back to content on their websites as destinations (is each italicized word becoming outmoded?). The Springer meeting was invaluable in getting publishers to share information about their goals and experience with distributed content. No one had blinders on about it.

In all these places, I heard editors and publishers enter the confessional to admit that distributed content tells us our sites are bad and ad blockers tell us our experiences are awful. Confession is good for the soul and strategic development.

This is all positive. News won’t survive and succeed by ignoring the platforms or trying to trip them. The platforms need the authority and originality that news organizations can bring. Together, we can finally start to challenge our assumptions about news and each other and set about the more critical task of reinventing news for this new age — that is, serving the public better. To peace in the kingdom.


Disclosures: I do not accept pay from Google, Facebook, or any platform. Being a poor prof, I do take travel expenses when I could not otherwise attend some of these events. For this trip, Google and Springer each paid a share of my flights and hotels as will the Tow-Knight Center, which I direct. That center is in part funded by the Knight Foundation, which is also a partner in the U.S. versions of Newsgeist. I have consulted with and spoken at some of the news organizations at these events.