At a press event in New York, Google announced today that it’s rolling out the Google News Initiative, in which it’s investing $300 million over the next three years. The goal is to help publishers make money and to combat “fake news,” which consists of several products designed to help newsrooms and media businesses.
According to press reports, Google believes it can help support the ailing media industry through the initiative’s products. Take, for example, Subscribe with Google, which will make it easier to purchase subscriptions through your Google account. So far, participating publishers include USAToday, New York Times, Washington Post, and the Financial Times.
The feature gives publishers data and tools to “expand reach,” “drive conversations” and “engage subscribers.” Google, naturally, takes a cut.
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
The company wrote in a blog post that it paid $12.6 billion to news organizations and “drove 10 billion clicks a month to publishers’ websites” for free last year. This sounds like a lot—and it is—but Google, perhaps more than any other technology company, has arguably crippled the economics of media over the last two decades.
Media execs are watching this with a close eye. Raju Narisetti, CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, said that Google has worked toward easing that tense relationship with news publishers.
“While all our and their business models still create friction and competition, it’s been good to see Google rely on Richard Gingras and his Google News team, and be both responsive and receptive to news industry feedback, and also put serious money where their mouth is,” Narisetti said.
The New York Times, which is among the early participants, has been in talks with Google for a while about the search giant’s relationship with journalism. Meredith Levien, chief operating officer of The New York Times, said that while there’s no arguing that the atomization of the experience of journalism has been bad for the business of journalism, she sees the News Initiative as a positive step and is happy to participate. Google’s latest initiative, she said, “isn’t the whole answer, and there’s more to be written here … but the details make sense to us.”
Google is also attempting to stamp out “fake news” through another tool of the News Initiative, dubbed Disinfo Lab. It’s working with First Draft, a project based out of Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, which combats “mis- and disinformation during elections and breaking news moments.” Google is also partnering with Poynter, Stanford, and the Local Media Association on a media literacy project called MediaWise.
“Misinformation and the weakened state of news media is a fundamental, global problem and [I’m] glad Google wants to pitch in to try address what is turning out to be a wicked problem that doesn’t lend itself to easy fixes,” Narisetti said.
The fact that Google is taking on something like fake news holds a note of irony; the company’s algorithm continually and frequently surfaces conspiracy theories and unverified news reports from disreputable publications. After the Parkland shooting in Florida, for example, the No. 1 trending video on YouTube was a video that alleged that one of the survivors, David Hogg, was an actor.
And after the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the search engine (along with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) helped propagate misinformation dubbing the man who shot and killed 26 people in a church “variously as a member of a pro-Bernie Sanders group, as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, as a recent convert to Islam and as a radical alt-left supporter with possible antifa ties,” according to USA Today.
News organizations and the public have a speed problem. The problem of disinformation or lies travels faster than truth in a world of distributed content and networks—especially today, with increasing encroachments on free press, Levien said.
“I’m interested in how news organizations work together to make the public more conscious of these things,” she said. “The answer lies in how the public that thinks about how it gets its news and is conscious of what it takes to have quality journalism.”
What types of content Google’s algorithm will pull up and whether it will stop surfacing conspiracy theories masked as news remains to be seen.
“Actually, that story should have been done three to five years ago,” Narisetti said. “They had a perfect playbook, and Facebook is idiotic not to copy it, despite just starting to. We can now mostly trust but verify with Google, while we have to verify before trusting with Facebook. A big difference.”