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Journalism can be sustained on its own: Google VP (News)

As Google’s vice president of News, one core part of Richard Gingras’ position is answering the tough questions from publishers he regularly meets. Following his speech at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Taipei recently, Bonnier’s Pia Rehnquist posed some questions to Gingras, as did the publishers in the audience. Dean Roper presents an edited version of that exchange with Rehnquist and Congress participants

Pia Rehnquist: How important are our news to Google? Because you said it’s not a big part of the search statistics, but yet you are here.
Richard Gingras: It’s very important to Google. And let me kind of answer that in a couple of ways as I am often asked that question. Well, let me give you a very direct, self-interested answer. We know our business is healthiest in open societies. We believe that the role of journalism helps maintain those open societies. Indeed, it’s a measure of open societies. But if I look at it from a big picture, we should be concerned about the future and the success of journalism. Now, at the same time, from a financial perspective, no. But that shouldn’t be news to you, right?  What advertisers, particularly in the digital world, want to put their ads up against a story about people starving in Darfur, right? So those news queries, we don’t make direct revenue off of that. So from a commercial perspective, not much value.

From a societal perspective, and from the overall health of our business, it means an awful lot. And I think the question that we’re all confronting is, what’s the best way to address that? What’s the best way for Google to express its supportive role in a society without breaking the very underpinnings of the nature of the open web and a search engine itself? And do you have the answer to that question?  The best way to cooperate? To me, the key thing, there’s no simple answer here. But one thing I fear, and I’ve said this to many of you, I fear that the direction we’re headed is towards a completely transactional relationship. And I don’t think that’s a healthy thing.

I can remember once a dean of a journalism school said, I will be so happy when we’re through this period of transformation. And I looked at him and said, that’s not ever going to happen. Technology is going to continue to change, a digital society is going to continue to change.

Might it not be wise for us to make sure we have that collaborative relationship? And I have to tell you that it is becoming more transactional. I have to tell you that inside Google, I get increasingly asked very hard financial questions.

We’ve said publicly, we are among the largest supporters of journalism in the world. Frankly, I don’t know who’s larger in terms of true dollars spent. Now you may consider that enough or not enough, but it is indeed the truth. So I hope we can find that balance. And there’s no magical formula to the balance. I do go back to the point that I said, an independent press is only independent to the extent it’s not dependent on any singular sources of financial support.

My feeling is that you’re not very optimistic about the next three, five years. Am I interpreting you (correctly)?
You know, I am an optimist by nature. I’ve become a little bit less optimistic about the nature of the human species. I’ve always been a glass half-full person, but I have to admit that now the glass has to be half full with vodka. So, no, I mean, I’m optimistic, but only – and the reason I go through and say the things I say… I don’t know the answers, but if we don’t deal and understand the right questions, we won’t get there. I mean, don’t take my question about the relevance, the questioned relevance of journalism as a criticism, but it is what it is. When I look and say, you know, 98 per cent of the queries are not about news… when you look at the Reuters report and realise that three quarters of the population… if journalism disappeared, they wouldn’t notice. 

That’s a pretty scary thought. But if we can’t accept the questions, we won’t find the answers.

Does Google have any responsibility in that development?
Yes, yes. And I like to feel, and you know, and again, you know, we too have learned. I think all of us have to learn and continue to learn. I’ve always felt we have a deep sense of responsibility, and I like to think we’ve expressed it in many constructive ways. It doesn’t mean we’ve never made any mistakes. If so, we’re being dishonest with ourselves. We talk about machine learning. We as a company need to learn. We as individuals need to learn, and hopefully we will and continue to march forward in some constructive fashion.

What do you think that the news media industry needs to learn?
I think it’s that main question. As I said, we need to be careful about making decisions based on memes. It drives me kind of crazy that it’s now “big, bad tech.” Now, let me tell you, I’ve been in this business a long time. Fifteen years ago, I could go around the world representing Google and people would bow. That was absurd. Now I can go into a room and people are there with a baseball bat, ready to whack me in the head. That is absurd. Right?

Rehnquist: I have it here. No, I’m just kidding.
Gingras: Again, going back to your question, I think it’s simply us recognising that the world has changed. The behaviour of our societies have changed. We live in this environment of frictionless free expression. That’s an extraordinary challenge. And I think here, too, it’s the kind of things I said: we need to recognise that it’s going to require constant innovation. One question I keep asking when I meet with publishers is ‘are we asking the right questions of the societies we’re looking to serve?’ Are we doing the research to understand how people perceive the work of journalism; how they perceive what is valuable versus what is clickable? Right? We have to ask those hard questions because that’s the only way we make progress, theoretically. And there’s no simple answer. It’s constant experimentation. And I think that word is really critical. Right? Because it’s hard in any culture, in any corporate culture, to take risks and try things. And I think it’s really important to use the term experiment because it’s about the learnings. It’s not about success or failure. You want people to take those chances and not be concerned that if they’re wrong, their careers are over.

Questions from the audience
I’m interested in a sentence you didn’t finish when you said you are increasingly getting asked some difficult financial questions in Google. I think you said financial. And I would just like to understand what point you were really trying to make as far as that is concerned? What is it that you are wanting to know, wanting us to know about the conversations that are happening that may be either of value or perhaps a warning to the rest of us?  
Yeah. I mean, there are so many things. Obviously, we don’t have time to go into all of them. But when you get down to it, we too are a business. You are businesses, most of you. Even if you’re a non-profit, you’re a business. You’ve got to make the numbers work. And so the questions I’m getting asked internally is what’s workable, what’s financially reasonable and expected for us to do or not do? And that, I think, becomes the hard question. Because I’m very proud of what we did with GNI (the Google News Initiative). But I get asked, you know, the standard business question: what’s the return on our investment in GNI? 

Rehnquist: You get to come here?
How do I codify that? I get to come here. I get people say thank you for what you’re doing with GNI. But how do we codify that?  That’s a very hard question to answer to the people who manage the numbers back in California. So that’s, you know, really what I was getting at there. Where do we find that balance.

Thank you very much for mentioning investigative reporting. I am an investigative reporter in one of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova. And we lose money while Google gets money with our help because we write about oligarchs who had stolen billions from our banks. And they don’t pay to us, and we will never take money to promote them. But they pay to Google. And they come on our webpage. And people, when they read our investigative stories, see their beautiful faces and successful businesses. And my question is, are there any ethical discussions and dilemmas while taking money for advertisement from global oligarchs, criminals, and all kinds of bad guys?
That’s an interesting question. And it’s hard for me to answer without getting into very individual specifics. Right? You know, look, that’s in a sense a challenge… We live in a world that is largely about advertising-driven and supported media. The question you ask is kind of an age-old one. When I was in public broadcasting, the question was like, why are you taking financial support from oil companies? How do you do that calculation of the ethics and principles of certain businesses that you may be accepting money from?  It’s a very tough one.

And it then also gets into questions of, depending on what your business is, these interesting questions of, can you legally say no? Obviously, it depends. We are very careful not to accept advertising from people who we think are practicing fraudulent behaviour. But often there are very, very nuanced things. I would hope from our perspective that we do the right thing in this regard. These are decisions that each of you who sell advertising, you kind of make every day. And I think we need to as well. Again, if I understand the question as you intend, I very much appreciate the concern.

I’m a reporter from Taiwan. So this is a question about Taiwan. This might be a tricky question, but I would like to ask you that several Taiwanese legislators have drafted a bill to promote the negotiations between tech platforms and media companies. And that might include payment for using media content. And I would like to ask you, what is your general opinion about this kind of legislation? Like what is also happening in Canada?  
I think my answer to that was largely in that speech. Right? I understand what governments may want to do. I understand what publishers may want their governments to do. I would think very carefully about each and every one of those questions, in terms of is it the right method? Is it the right way to approach the problem? Now, one thing I will say that frankly I have personally found difficult is somehow there is this belief that journalism cannot be sustained on its own. I don’t buy that. I understand. And look, I have been a student of this for a long time.

Certainly, the great day when newspapers, as Lord Thompson of Fleet said, owning a newspaper is like having a license to print money. Right? In the heyday of journalism in the United States, or anywhere, the major metropolitan newspaper, you were the Internet of the community. They came to you for everything. You could set advertising prices. It was an extraordinarily good business. And it will never be quite that business again. But to draw from that conclusion that it cannot be sustained on its own through various methods and models, be it subscription support or advertising, I don’t buy it.

Because I see very good evidence, and typically it is among emerging players, and I understand why. And I don’t say this to criticise legacy papers. It is really hard to be disrupted. Right? You know, we know that the key thing that disrupted newspapers in the United States was the loss of classified advertising. Because it went to online marketplaces like Craigslist. You tell me how the CEO of a then publicly traded company in the United States was all of a sudden going to turn around and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to give the classifieds away for free.” Not easy. Not easy.  

So I understand the complexity. I understand the difficulty. But I don’t buy the notion that it can’t be sustained on its own because we have seen good evidence of that otherwise. But it all goes back to those same basic questions of how do you drive innovation? How do you drive innovation in everything from advertising products to innovation in terms of how do you evolve the perception of value of the journalism you’re asking people to pay for? It’s a journey. No simple answer. But I think we need to be very careful about that meme as well that journalism can only survive if it’s financially supported by a government or by taxpayers or by, you know, singular companies.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. Dean Roper is director of Insights and editor-in-chief of WAN-IFRA. He coordinates all activities related to the organisation’s array of multimedia publications.)

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