Deep Pockets, Big Challenges: Google's Journalism Initiative Takes Shape

photo: pixinoo/shutterstock

photo: pixinoo/shutterstock

Recent developments surrounding the Google News Initiative (GNI) suggest that the two prevailing trends in the turbulent journalism space—developing sustainable business models and combating fake news—are far from mutually exclusive.

The Google News Initiative (GNI) launched in March with the goal of "helping journalism thrive in the digital age." At the time, chief business officer Philipp Schindler summed up the twin challenges accordingly:

People come to Google looking for information they can trust, and that information often comes from the reporting of journalists and news organizations around the world. And while the demand for quality journalism is as high as it’s ever been, the business of journalism is under pressure, as publications around the world face challenges from an industry-wide transition to digital.

These challenges "matter deeply" to Google. "After all," Schindler continued, "our mission to build a more informed world is inherently tied to the reporting of journalists and news organizations. Our shared mission also reflects shared business interests. Platforms like Search and YouTube depend on a healthy ecosystem of publishers producing great digital content."

The bigger connection here is clear. Google's products rely on the exchange of accurate information. Similarly, outlets must produce impactful, trustworthy and engaging journalism to thrive in an ever-competitive digital landscape. So what's GNI's role here?

The short answer: Helping outlets optimize the YouTube platform and boosting "news literacy" among consumers.

Supporting Technological Innovation

In announcing the GNI a few months back, Schindler acknowledged that Google's previous work in the journalism space "might not be enough." The terrain is simply too unsettled and fluid. "Business models for journalism continue to change drastically," he noted, and "the rapid evolution of technology is challenging all institutions, including the news industry—to keep pace."

His comments foreshadowed YouTube's announcement of $25 million in funding to help outlets keep pace on the technological front.

First, YouTube will deploy its experts to help news organizations deliver a more compelling online news experience. Members of this working group include Vox Media, Jovem Pan, and India Today.

Second, in a move that echoes the work of the Knight Prototype Fund, GNI will provide "innovation funding" across approximately 20 global markets to support news organizations in building sustainable video operations. Grants will enable partners to build key capabilities, train staff on video best practices, enhance production facilities, and develop formats optimized for online video.

Third, YouTube will significantly expand its support team focused on news publishers. 

News organizations interested in more information about these YouTube-related offerings can click here. It's certainly worth the time: According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2017, 18 percent of all Americans now get news on YouTube, making it the second-most popular social media site for news, albeit still far behind Facebook.

Previous examples of such support include GNI helping Hearst Newspapers sort, label and categorize more than 3,000 articles each day, and the launch of Outline, an open-source tool that lets news organizations provide journalists more secure access to the internet.

These initiatives fit the rubric of developing sustainable business models through technological innovation. In theory, they don't touch on the issue of "fake news." There's a certain logic to this. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat don't create the news. The news is the product; the platform is the delivery mechanism.

But funders unanimously agree on the following point: The most sophisticated delivery mechanism in the world can be an agent for chaos if the outlet in question publishes misinformation, consciously or otherwise. And so one of the most salient questions facing the funding community right now involves the tactical approaches to mitigating the proliferation of fake news. Can stakeholders, including online platforms like YouTube, most effectively tame disinformation through technology, human intuition, the cultivation of certifiable "real news," or a hybrid approach?

Four tech companies—Apple, Google, Facebook and Spotify—offered one answer to this question in early August, when they purged or restricted Alex Jones of Infowars from their sites. 

A component of YouTube's announcement addresses this question in a different way.

Boosting "News Literacy"

"Authoritativeness," reads the YouTube blog post, "is essential to viewers, especially during fast-moving, breaking news events." As a result, YouTube has invested in new product features to "prominently surface authoritative sources."

YouTube will provide more sources and context on breaking news, along with a reminder that "developing news can rapidly change." Similarly, in an effort to provide users with more context regarding a news item, YouTube users will now see information from third parties, including Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica, "alongside videos on a small number of well-established historical and scientific topics that have often been subject to misinformation, like the moon landing and the Oklahoma City Bombing."

In addition, along with the GNI and, YouTube teamed up with the Poynter Institute, Stanford University and other organizations to support MediaWise, a U.S.-based initiative designed to equip 1 million teens with digital literacy skills.

Lastly, taking a cue from the recently launched Community Listening and Engagement Fund, YouTube plans to showcase more local news across 25 media markets around the United States.

Questioning Consensus

The fight against fake news is a relatively new one that exploded in urgency in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Funder agreement from a tactical perspective remains elusive, which is why we're particularly keen on the News Integrity Initiative. Funded by Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, Ford Foundation, and others, it works to "foster informed and engaged communities, combat media manipulation, and support inclusive, constructive, and respectful civic discourse."

Yet even areas of conceptual consensus are open to further debate.

For instance, funders argue that not only is publishing "real" news a necessary social good, it can also be good for business. This is where these two main challenges, previously articulated by Philipp Schindler, overlap: By integrating accurate news within a technologically savvy business model, outlets may have a fighting chance after all.

But in a digital landscape where one's metrics for success are clicks, shares and conversions, is this a case of wishful thinking?

MIT recently published a huge study on social media's role in amplifying fake news, and found that fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into social networks, and spread much faster than accurate stories. What's more, humans are the main culprit. "False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it," the study's abstract read.

The study's most disturbing finding? Twitter users seem to prefer sharing falsehoods. 

Nor are established news outlets or platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat immune from contributing to the contagion. Writing in the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer noted that by pushing revenue-generating "engaging or provocative content," the good guys also unwittingly run the risk of amplifying fake news.

The bottom line? Surfacing replicable solutions won't be easy, and Google's plans to help outlets optimize YouTube and educate consumers should be viewed within the context of a news ecosystem beholden to misaligned incentives, technology's inability to identify contextual inaccuracies and intent, and irrational user pathologies.

The good news? Google can withstand any road bumps along the way. Its financial commitment to GNI stands at $300 million.