Garfield Anderssen/Flickr

Google Signs a Friendship Pact with Euro Publishers

Google needs friends in Europe. It may have finally found some.

Tomorrow, Google and eight legacy European newspaper publishers — the Guardian, the Financial Times, Die Zeit, FAZ, El Pais, Les Echos, La Stampa, and NRC Media — will announce an agreement to collaborate on product development, innovation, training, and research to “help support a sustainable news ecosystem and promote innovation in digital journalism.” Google has included a €150m innovation fund.

First, a few disclosures: I advise the Guardian. I was part of a meeting with the publishers and Google last January, when this was worked out. I have given my (free) advice to Google on this deal and its relations with news publishers, especially in Europe, underscoring what I have said publicly. I am rooting for this to succeed.

So what is success? Let me start with what it’s not. Success is not Google paying €150m in blackmail to publishers as it did in France; I’d rather see such funds go to true investment in innovative news startups or to news companies’ bottom lines via mutually beneficial new business models. Success is not training a bunch of journalists in the digital skills they should have or doing more research into exactly how screwed old media is — and I say that as someone who trains journalists and performs research. Success is not going to be measured by a slight deceleration in the velocity of attacks from EU politicians and publishers against Google and Silicon Valley or a few more europennies for legacy publishers selling old-fashioned, volume-based advertising.

No, success in my view will come when:

  • Google headquarters pays attention to news as a vital component of the information that Google helps organize, and when Google devotes its own core product development talent to news not as a standalone brand but where appropriate as an integral element of Google’s own services and businesses, from search to mobile. At Google, if it’s not about product, it doesn’t matter. So, Google: Is this about product?
  • Google establishes new best practices — models for Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, et al to follow — in creating products that bring news publishers what they really need: not more anonymous traffic, but more information — more data — about their users and their content. The training I want to see from Google would educate not just journalists but also commercial staff in how to use that data to build and improve their services and their businesses, because that is Google’s real expertise. Google is a personal services company; so should news companies be.
  • Google helps news startups as much as it helps news oldsters and it helps news organizations around the world as much as it does the squeaky, rusty wheels of Europe. As long as this initiative is devoted just to Europe, it will look like a response to the badgering Google has received at the hands of Germany’s Axel Springer, Burda, et al. This initiative needs to be about news and an informed society the world over.
  • Publishers understand that Google is neither their assassin nor their savior but now a necessary partner in distribution, advertising, data, and technology. The same goes for the other, demonized American technology giants. We will know this initiative is working when media companies negotiate with Silicon Valley not on the basis of poor-mouthed whining or political blackmail but out of mutual benefit.

I think all that is possible and more. Last December, as the process that led to this agreement was heating up, I wrote a post here asking what Google could do for news and then another asking what news could do for Google and one more in the same vein about Facebook. Thus what I was saying in private was what I had shared publicly. Those posts contain my wishlists:

  • asking the Valley’s best brains to help reimagine news as a valued service;
  • building containers that let news travel to users where they are, with business models attached;
  • bringing news organizations more data so they can provide greater relevance and value in return (with privacy done right);
  • reinventing advertising around value over volume;
  • investing in real innovation.

I also ask the news industries’ best brains to help Google, Facebook, and Twitter — which, like it or not, are our new news trucks — to discover, promote, and thus support quality news instead of just bringing more eyeballs to the 4,000th rewrite of the same damned story about the same fucking dress.

I must take my hat off to Springer and Burda. Their political shenanigans led to the antitrust decision against Google, the European Parliament vote against Google, the German link law and Spanish link tax, and much political chest-thumping against Google. They backed Google into a corner and forced Google to make nice. This agreement — albeit with publishers other than Springer and Burda — and new attitude are the result. So congratulations to Germany’s publishers. But now I hope they realize it is time to move on. Protectionism will not save their businesses. Innovation will. Collaboration will.

Facebook realizes that Germany’s publishers could come after it next. To its credit, Facebook has invited publishers in and listened to their needs and responded with new products that help both news companies and news users. Chris Cox, Facebook’s head of product, has said that news matters to Facebook; there, news is about product. Various news companies are working with Facebook on new means to distribute their content to users inside the service.

At this month’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell gave a keynote that highlighted all this but still stirred controversy. George Brock, of the other City University, and Jay Rosen of NYU each castigated Mitchell for not grappling with the big questions that are raised when Facebook becomes a — perhaps the — key distributor of news. What is Facebook’s responsibility to be open about the distribution decisions it makes? How does Facebook’s policing of community standards conflict with freedom of speech and of the press? Are Facebook, Twitter, and Google more than mere distributors or newsstands? Are they indeed becoming news editors? This is a vital discussion well worth having. It is not a discussion about these companies’ obligations to news organizations. It is a discussion about their obligation to society.

There was a time when Google cared about news; that’s when it made Google News. Then there appeared to be a time when Google didn’t so much care about it. But now Google and Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, too, have no alternative but to care about news, whether by force from European publishers and politicians or by choice.

Now technologists and journalists need to come together to use technology to reimagine what news can be, to investigate new ways to sustain journalism, to recalibrate how we measure our success (moving from mass-media metrics of reach and frequency to service metrics of impact and value), and to reaffirm the obligation these powerful institutions have to serve and protect the interests of the public.

This is the moment when that can happen. That is why I welcome Google’s Digital News Initiative with this starter kit of news companies. I encourage Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and news enterprises to meet at eye level and grapple with these issues and opportunities.

At first, the work of this group will be tactical as they — to quote the Google press release — begin “dialogue focusing on ads, video, apps, data insights, paid-for journalism, and Google News.” Anyone — old company or new — can apply for a share of Google’s €150m innovation fund. But no one should expect some magic app to result to salve and solve news’ woes, though we should expect to see real products and progress.

As I see it, the real importance of this announcement is that it opens the door to collaboration around big questions and big opportunities. I greatly respect the eight publishers represented here and Google but I hope this conversation will soon include many more news and technology companies. This is a good start.