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Google’s Media Takeover

Google says it’s trying to help newsrooms around the world. Where exactly is it putting its millions and what does it want in return?

Key Findings:

  • Google’s media funding tracks regulatory threats
  • Funding shifts from Europe to US amid gathering backlash
  • Survey of recipients reveals growing unease 
  • Program history shows reasons for concern as it expands in North America
  • Most comprehensive tally finds more than half a billion dollars in funding

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In late 2010, Google announced that it was giving $5 million to nonprofits working on “new approaches to journalism in the digital age.”1 The company said the grants were intended to “help new ideas blossom and encourage experimentation.”2 But observers were quick to call them a peace offering to an industry already struggling with the damage the search giant was doing to its bottom line.3

Nearly a decade later, Google’s media giving has burgeoned into a globe-spanning operation that spends tens of millions of dollars a year on everything from e-books and online subscription systems to fellowships and journalism conferences. Google has used its largesse to cast itself as a friend of journalism—even as its digital advertising and news aggregation have decimated the media’s traditional sources of revenue.4 In the process, the company has established a presence in newsrooms throughout the world in a way that appears to have few, if any, precedents.

The Google Transparency Project undertook the most comprehensive effort yet to collect all of Google’s payments to media organizations around the world in one place. The analysis included 16 different Google programs and related organizations and spanned more than a decade.

It revealed that Google and related entities have committed between $567 million and $569 million to support at least 1,157 media projects around the globe.5 The analysis also identified another 170 projects supported by Google for which no funding information was publicly available, suggesting that the total amount the company has spent on media grants is likely far higher.6

Google often boasts about its support for journalism, disclosing plans to spend over half a billion dollars on media initiatives since 2013. But Google isn’t always transparent about its spending, making it difficult to assess what the company is giving—and what it may be getting in return. Google does not maintain a centralized public repository of all of its journalism sponsorships. When the company does disclose its support, it often withholds the size of the award, or only lists them within broad funding ranges.

In a survey conducted for this study, many recipients said they were precluded by contract from discussing details of their funding. In many cases, the phrase “sponsored by Google” was the only indication the company had supported an event or organization. Google has also funded journalism projects through outside initiatives and private family foundations established by top Google executives, further complicating the tally.7

Google’s media spending has largely tracked the legal and regulatory threats faced by the company

In September 2018, Netzpolitik.org, a German news site that advocates for digital rights, analyzed 447 European projects funded through one Google initiative, the €150 million ($165 million) Digital News Innovation (DNI) Fund, which the company launched in 2015 to counter years of complaints from European publishers.8 The new GTP analysis includes spending by 15 additional Google programs and related organizations, and stretches from 2007 to 2019.

KEY DATES

  • 2010: European Commission launches formal antitrust investigation of Google’s search business 
  • 2012: France and Germany consider forcing search engines to pay publishers for content
  • 2015: European Union considers taxing digital companies for showing copyrighted material; Europe’s competition chief says the company will be charged with antitrust violations
  • 2017: Google faces criticism for allowing Russian operatives to use its platforms to interfere in the 2016 election
  • 2018: U.S. media companies cut more than 15,000 jobs
  • 2019: Justice Department opens federal antitrust investigation of Google’s business practices; U.S. Congress launches inquiries

The new analysis identified nearly three times as many projects, and 859 unique recipients of Google’s giving, providing new insight into the breadth and scope of the company’s media initiatives. Google’s 1,327 grants and other awards have run the gamut, from legacy institutions, professional organizations and other pillars of the media establishment, to start-ups, hyper-local projects and students just starting their journalism careers.

The company claims its funding of media projects is altruistic. “We believe in spreading knowledge to make life better for everyone,” Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, says in a quote featured prominently on the website of the company’s News Initiative.9

But the new analysis suggested that Google’s media giving is designed, at least in part, to advance its policy goals. Google’s media spending has largely tracked the legal and regulatory threats faced by the company, increasing as its troubles intensified, then shifting to a new focus as different threats emerged.

Some of Google’s earliest media giving, for example, was focused on France, as news publishers in the country began to balk at the company’s use of their content. In 2013 alone, Google made 45 French awards totaling more than $37 million, according to the new data. After heading off the French threat, Google expanded its giving to include the rest of Europe as well, making 258 awards throughout the continent worth as much as $92.4 million in 2016 alone, and an additional 18 awards worth an undisclosed amount.

Overall, more than one-fifth of the company’s media grants (285 awards) have gone to media outlets in France and Germany. The two countries were among the strongest advocates of a tighter European Union copyright law, fiercely opposed by Google, that would require sites to pay publishers for using bits of their articles.10

Most recently, Google’s media largesse has shifted to the United States, where lawmakers have become increasingly skeptical of dominant technology platforms, privacy legislation is being considered and antitrust authorities have begun to investigate them for abuse.

In 2018, amid complaints that it had allowed foreign actors to manipulate U.S. elections and profited from fake news, our analysis identified 66 grants and other Google awards in the U.S. worth at least $4 million, with the actual total likely much higher. That was more than the total number of U.S. awards it made in 2015 and 2016 combined and more in dollar terms than at any point in the decade we examined.

The company’s latest campaign is the Google News Initiative (GNI), a three-year, $300 million effort it announced in 2018 “to help journalism thrive in the digital age.”11 The program’s scope is international, but in its first year it has included a notable focus on the U.S.

In March 2019, Google and the Sacramento-based McClatchy newspaper chain unveiled The Compass Experiment, a three-year project that will launch digital-only news operations in three small- to mid-sized U.S. communities.12 The project will be funded through the GNI, but like many awards made under the program, the exact amount to be provided was not disclosed.

In May 2019, Google announced a new “innovation challenge,” pledging up to $300,000 each for local news projects from the U.S. and Canada designed to generate revenue or increase audience engagement.13

A July 2019 meeting between Google officials and top Canadian media executives suggests the company is also importing to North America the approach it first developed Europe, where it tapped establishment media figures to act as gatekeepers to its millions.14 The approach was seen by critics as a way to coopt media leaders, and one that in some cases created troubling conflicts of interest.

Direct payments to media organizations are just one of the ways Google has insinuated itself into the newsroom. Google has built goodwill by backing more than 144 news fellowships between 2013 and 2018, according to the analysis, to the benefit of both young journalists and the media organizations that host them.

The 10-week program, which in 2018 paid U.S. participants up to $10,000, often begins with a trip to Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. There, new fellows receive “a behind-the-scenes look at what the Google News Lab is doing to support the work of journalists around the world.”15

It has embedded student reporters in some of the world’s most influential news organizations, including the BBC, Financial Times, and ProPublica.16 Google expanded its News Lab Fellowship program last year, saying it would provide more than 50 fellowships in 12 countries.17

Google has also funded several initiatives that seek to automate aspects of journalism usually done by humans, and in some cases replace human newsgathering and reporting with bots, artificial intelligence and automation. The tools include programs that write news stories with minimal human input.18

The new analysis also revealed growing uneasiness among recipients of Google’s media giving. As part of its review, GTP attempted to contact more than 800 organizations and individuals that have received Google funding.19 Many said their agreements with the tech giant prevented them from disclosing the amounts they had received. Some did provide exact funding levels and many reported a generally positive experience, noting that Google was a hands-off funder and made no attempt to interfere with their projects. 

But some recipients expressed concerns about Google’s impact on the media ecosystem. A recipient of a 2017 Google News Lab grant was generally appreciative of Google’s interest in supporting journalism but said “it seems as though many of their programs, unsurprisingly, lean heavily towards subsidizing/promoting the use of Google’s tools, which always raises my concerns about long-term sustainability.”

A 2015 winner of a Computational Journalism Award said she had recently learned about the ways Google and Facebook siphon ad revenue from media organizations. “I fear for the future of free press in Europe and I think Google’s efforts to help journalists at the same time do not make up for the revenue loss,” she wrote. “Had I been aware of these issues in 2014 when I applied for the Google grant, I might not have done it. I know and respect great colleagues at Google, but the company as a whole IMO has not had a positive impact on journalists.”

Perhaps to counter such views, Google has frequently supported broad industry-wide efforts, multiplying the impact of its giving. Three recipients, the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, Maastricht-based European Journalism Centre, and the U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors received the most grants by far—26, 25, and 23 awards respectively.20 The fourth most frequent recipients received only 11 awards.

Top recipients by number of awards:

Top recipients by monetary value:

The biggest beneficiary of Google’s largesse in monetary terms was the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism £5.5 million over five years from Google, according to the analysis21 dwarfing the £695,203 provided by the project’s 13 other sponsors.

In another example of Google spreading its giving across the industry, a program conducted by the Indianapolis-based Society of Professional Journalists has provided free training on Google products to more than 21,000 journalists at more than 550 locations across the United States and Canada.22

In Europe, Google enlisted members of the media establishment to help distribute its millions and, perhaps not surprisingly, concentrated much of its funding among the largest and most politically connected media conglomerates. For example, Le Figaro and its sister companies have received at least €4.5 million for seven different media projects since 2013.23 The publisher of the venerated French daily Le Monde has received more than €3.2 million since 2013—substantial amounts for media companies struggling in a harsh business environment.24

The analysis also highlighted Google’s support for local news, which has suffered most in the digital age and is arguably least able to resist Google’s incursion into the newsroom.25 It was among the funders of Report for America, a national service program run by the GroundTruth Project that places journalists in newsrooms across the country, providing $150,000 in 2018 and $250,000 in 2019.26 The program sponsored 61 “emerging journalists” in 2019, placing them at The Modesto Bee in California, the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia and the Detroit Free Press.27

The Google News Lab provided an undisclosed amount to Matter, venture capital fund and media incubator, which ran a series of local news bootcamps across the U.S. in 2018, providing free training for journalists, news businesspeople, designers, and technologists.28 And Google supported Advance Local, a U.S. publisher that owns 24 newspapers and nine websites, as it built a new format for local news storytelling.29

The scope and scale of the funding shows that the media is growing increasingly dependent on Google for cash, technology, training and other essentials. That, in turn, raises concerns about whether newsrooms will be willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Until recently, the tech giants had not been subjected to the kind of aggressive accountability journalism that a dominant industry would normally face. And even now, Google has been able to avoid the type of scrutiny that Facebook has endured over the past year.

Facebook has taken notice. In January 2019 it announced it was setting up its own $300 million fund to make payments to journalism projects.30

“These people should be being investigated by local news. They should not be the platform on which it is depending,” Emily Bell, a former top editor of The Guardian and founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, explained in a recent discussion of Google and Facebook’s support for local journalism. “That is a looming problem for us as journalists, because we can very easily get addicted to the money.”31

With Google set to expand its giving into additional regions of the world, the new details about the company’s giving in Europe should serve as a cautionary tale.32 The company has shown its willingness to use its funding for a struggling industry to advance its own policy priorities. In June 2018, for example, a Google executive asked European media companies that had received grants to lobby on its behalf against tighter E.U. copyright rules, which the company staunchly opposed.33

The company has also shown itself willing to directly buy favorable coverage from the media. Just two weeks before the executive’s lobbying request, Google was reported to have been one of six companies paying £500,000 each to London’s Evening Standard newspaper for “money-can’t-buy” positive news stories and favorable comment pieces that would appear to readers as routine, independent editorial content.34 Despite criticism of the arrangement, Google and the newspaper proceeded with a revamped campaign.35

“These people should be being investigated by local news. They should not be the platform on which it is depending”

Google’s business decisions over the past two decades have been uniquely damaging to the industry.36 Its Google News aggregator stripped the value of trusted news brands, in some cases built up over a century or more, by lumping their stories together with those from less credible sources. The result was that The New York Times was put on the same level as a blog riffing off its deep investigation, blurring the distinction for readers.37

Google also undercut sites that relied on paid subscriptions with its “first click free” policy, which required publishers to offer free access to articles in order to appear in its search results.38 The policy helped delay the development of a sustainable business model for much of the industry, and its withdrawal came too late for many.

The company’s stranglehold over the online advertising market has devastated media companies. Google and Facebook together take 99% of new digital advertising spending, according to the most recent data from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.39

At the same time, Google’s giving has not stanched the bleeding in news media. In 2018 alone, media companies cut more than 15,000 jobs according to a recent report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a 281% increase over 2017.40 Three-quarters of those jobs were from news organizations.

This year isn’t looking much better: With layoffs and buyouts at Vice Media, McClatchy, BuzzFeed, Gannett and several other media outlets, news organizations cut more than 3,600 jobs in the first half of 2019.41

Against that backdrop, Google’s journalism initiatives—and similar, more recent spending by Facebook—are providing a financial infusion that has proved irresistible for struggling newsrooms that might normally look askance at funding from an industry they cover. As one recipient of Google funding told us: “I think you will find that many journalists are at the same time grateful that such funding sources exist (as others have been drying out for some time), and apprehensive that the huge digital gatekeepers are becoming involved in funding the news.”

Already, the deepening integration is raising troubling questions about conflicts of interest. Is Google’s giving being adequately disclosed, so readers, competitors, and others can weigh its influence? Does the money come with strings attached, explicit or implicit? And can reporters cover the company freely and fully, even as it supplements their newsrooms’ budgets, sometimes through multiple projects?

Google’s funding poses other problems, too. Should a technology platform with its own business interests to consider be deciding which media groups are worthy of support? Those questions are proving increasingly thorny, and Google is ill-equipped to handle them. In April 2019, for example, the company withdrew a planned grant to a Hungarian news site allied with Prime Minister Viktor Orban after critics complained about its racist, anti-Semitic content.42

In April 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg floated another approach, one that would allow technology platforms to help support news organizations while avoiding charges that they were buying influence. Put simply: paying publishers for their content.43 Facebook is reportedly moving forward with such a plan, offering several news outlets millions of dollars for the rights to include their content in a news section to be launched in late 2019.44

Meanwhile, the discomfort with Google’s current approach is intensifying. In July 2019, the publisher of a Canadian news site disclosed a private meeting about the Google News Initiative at Google’s Canadian headquarters that included top editors from the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the head of news at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.45

“The unspoken idea here is that having (accidentally?) destroyed the news business, Google will now help rebuild it, w products & partnerships,” tweeted Jesse Brown, publisher of CanadaLand, who said he walked out after being told the meeting was off the record. “[N]ews publishers need to think a bit harder about getting in bed with these interests.”

Click here to download the full report »

Click here to read the methodology »

Google’s Media Spending


1 https://web.archive.org/web/20190626200221/https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/5-million-to-encourage-innovation-in.html, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2010/10/google_donates_5_million_to_di_2.html?source=Registration&email=&gtm=top
2 https://web.archive.org/web/20190626200221/https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/5-million-to-encourage-innovation-in.html
3 https://www.niemanlab.org/2010/10/google-donates-5-million-for-news-innovation-to-knight-foundation-and-new-international-efforts/
4 https://www.cjr.org/special_report/global-business-of-journalism.php
5 Total figures calculated by converting award currency into U.S. dollars as of January 1 of the award year.
6 See methodology
7 https://journalists.org/2017/07/11/journalism-360-challenge-awards-285000-11-projects-advance-use-immersive-storytelling-news/, https://web.archive.org/web/20190717172915/http:/pdfs.citizenaudit.org/2008_11_PF/20-4170342_990PF_200712.pdf
8 https://netzpolitik.org/2018/news-initiative-wohin-googles-millionen-fuer-die-medien-in-deutschland-fliessen/; https://netzpolitik.org/ueber-uns/, https://en.ejo.ch/digital-news/the-publishers-patron
https://www.blog.google/around-the-globe/google-europe/digital-news-innovation-fund-three-years-and-662-total-projects-supported/
9 https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/about
10 https://www.neweurope.eu/article/google-supports-media-asks-political-help/ https://www.natlawreview.com/article/final-approval-given-to-eu-copyright-directive, https://phys.org/news/2019-07-french-parliament-copyright-reform-eu.html
11 https://blog.google/outreach-initiatives/google-news-initiative/announcing-google-news-initiative/
12 https://www.blog.google/outreach-initiatives/google-news-initiative/mcclatchy-and-google-partner-experimental-lab-local-news/, https://www.sec.gov/cgi-bin/browse-edgar?CIK=MNI&owner=exclude&action=getcompany
13 https://blog.google/outreach-initiatives/google-news-initiative/challenge-stimulate-local-news-north-america/
14 https://twitter.com/jessebrown/status/1148649957752213504?s=21
15 https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2017/calling-all-media-nerds-were-looking-for-our-next-google-news-lab-fellow/
https://www.propublica.org/atpropublica/apply-to-be-a-google-news-lab-fellow-at-propublica
16 https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/training/fellowship,
https://ajr.org/2013/11/13/google-journalism-fellowships-2/
17 https://medium.com/@grove/our-next-steps-in-the-google-news-initiative-ec5b7fe4dcb8
18 https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/dnifund/dni-projects/quevedo-ai-journalist-aide-de-camp/
19 GTP did not attempt to contact recipients of Google’s first Asia-Pacific Innovation Challenge, announced in spring 2019, or recipients of the 2012 African News Innovation Challenge.
20 Each of the three organizations held a series of training events with backing from Google. Two of them—the Center for Investigative Reporting and IRE—also hosted Google fellows.
21 https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-05/FOI_0.pdf
22 https://www.spj.org/google.asp
23 See methodology
24 https://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2018/04/12/2017-une-annee-de-croissance-pour-le-groupe-le-monde_5284379_3236.html
25 https://www.wsj.com/graphics/local-newspapers-stark-divide/
26 Email correspondence from recipient.
27 https://www.reportforamerica.org/2019/04/25/report-for-america-announces-61-corps-members-placed-in-50-local-news-organizations/
28 https://medium.com/matter-driven-narrative/a-lot-more-experiments-open-matter-e3088db96fb
29 https://youtube.googleblog.com/2018/12/gni-youtube-innovation-funding.html, https://www.advancelocal.com/
30 https://www.cjr.org/the_new_gatekeepers/facebook-journalism-funding.php
31 https://slate.com/technology/2019/04/google-and-facebook-are-investing-in-the-local-news-business.html, https://journalism.columbia.edu/faculty/emily-bell
32 https://web.archive.org/web/20190731160414/https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/innovation-challenges/
33 https://gizmodo.com/google-threatens-pulling-news-from-eu-as-disastrous-cop-1831957852, https://www.ft.com/content/a8031d7a-78a0-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d,
https://netzpolitik.org/wp-upload/2018/09/google-dni-email-on-copyright.pdf
34 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/george-osborne-s-london-evening-standard-promises-positive-news-coverage-to-uber-goo/
35 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/george-osborne-s-evening-standard-launches-delayed-money-can-t-buy, https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.standard.co.uk/futurelondon/skills
36 https://digitalcontentnext.org/blog/2016/06/16/google-and-facebook-devour-the-ad-and-data-pie-scraps-for-everyone-else/
37 https://digitalcontentnext.org/blog/2018/06/12/fight-for-the-future-new-york-times-ceo-mark-thompsons-breaking-the-news-keynote/
38 https://www.wsj.com/articles/google-offers-hand-to-news-publishers-1506916861
39 https://www.cjr.org/special_report/global-business-of-journalism.php
40 https://finance.yahoo.com/news/2018-was-the-worst-year-of-media-layoffs-since-2009-153106605.html
41 https://www.challengergray.com/press/press-releases/2019-june-job-cut-report-challenger-report-shows-highest-first-half-total-2009, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-01/journalism-layoffs-are-at-the-highest-level-since-last-recession
42 https://www.politico.eu/article/google-withdraws-grant-to-hungary-news-site-over-fake-news-anti-semitism/
43 https://www.vox.com/2019/4/1/18290330/facebook-news-tab-mark-zuckerberg-license-fee-axel-springer-mathias-dopfner, https://www.facebook.com/4/posts/10107028379388161?sfns=mo
44 https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-offers-news-outlets-millions-of-dollars-a-year-to-license-content-11565294575?mod=hp_minor_pos1
45 https://twitter.com/jessebrown/status/1148649957752213504?s=21