Pragmatic Gingras tells publishers Google's behind you

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A world with fewer publishers and more independent journalists is envisaged by media veteran Richard Gingras, speaking in Hong Kong last week.

It's a concept he acknowledges - that the internet has "put the printing press into everyone's hands" - but he's less at home with my suggestion that the presence of Google's global vice president for news at a sparsely-attended regional conference might be taking the digital giants' charm offensive to a new level.

"Charm," he tells me after his keynote address at WAN-Ifra's Digital Media Asia event, "doesn't last. It has to be supported by action."

And he's a man of action. Aged 67 and with a relationship with Google that dates to 2007, he looks back on considerable experience across more than half a century "dancing at the intersection of media technology and public policy", as he puts it.

In the 1970s he was expanding the reach and scale of TV networks through satellites; he was "in the room" when Ted Turner introduced CNN, then saddened by that category devolving to facts v. news. He lays claim to the 1980 introduction of "one of the first interactive news products" using broadcast teletext, and in 1994 to overseeing the creation of online 'portals' and search engines including Apple's pre-internet eWorld.

But with every change in media distribution came "friction between those who want to expand expression versus those who want to control it," he says, leading to the need to "evolve our journalistic approaches" for today's generation of users. And today's "explosion of expression" with more than 1.7 billion websites.

At one level, he says it poses questions about how democracies might "survive and thrive" in an environment of unfettered free expression, but also how new approaches might evolve "in quest of commonly-understood facts and not fall prey to amplifying our divisions".

As he continues, there's a nod to publishers in the room - the South China Morning Post, the (Singapore) Straits Times and (Philippines) Daily Inquirer - as well as to the Providence Journal "where my dad kept the presses running", which 30 years back, were "the internet of their communities... mundane, but immensely valuable as a magnet to advertisers". He cites contrasts and changes: the car classifieds or Gumtree and Craigslist, jobs on LinkedIn, recipes and discount coupons from the paper's food section superceded by and New York Times Cooking. Or ordered food.

"Not surprisingly, the advertising dollars moved with those behaviours," he says, and with modest understatement, "This has not been good for the business models of newspapers."

Ad revenue generated by classifieds, by movie ads, by supermarket ads - which cross-subsidised serious journalism - "is no longer what it once was".

A further nod to NewsCorp in Australia, which owns listings giant but "understandably" no longer subsidises the creation of news through it. And later to Stuff in New Zealand - of which chief executive Sinead Boucher was present - which does.

Gingras says that while the business of journalism has changed, "that doesn't mean providing quality journalism cannot be a successful business.

"Models allowing journalism to flourish will be different, and in the view of some, more effective than in the past."

He outlines a "context for newsmedia today" in which publishers are challenged to build relationships with people who have not grown up subscribing to newspapers - "much less receiving physical papers" - foster those relationships in a world where the millennial generation is likely to develop an affinity with new sources of news, and "impact the lives of readers in positive ways".

He says Google continues to "learn and evolve" approaches to find solutions, and supports publishers and journalists "by helping people find their journalist work and sending them directly to your sites".

Traffic of more than 24 billion visits sent a month has enabled smaller or emerging publishers to get discovered and grow a business, and legacy publishers to expand audiences "far beyond the range of their print distribution".

In travels across the region over the past year, he says publishers were always as eager to work more closely with Google "as we are willing to work with them". There's a desire to differentiate Google from other tech giants, and Gingras points to efforts on reader revenue through "powerful and unique" Subscribe in which 95 per cent of revenue generated goes to the publisher along with the customer information "necessary" to further build engagement.

"Consider this is in comparison to other players where the revenue share is 50 per cent to you and your customer's name is unknown to you," he says, reporting "promising growth" in in Asia Pacific, with The Hindi in India celebrating 100,000 paid subscribers to their e-paper edition.

Gingras says the Google News Initiative is investing $300 million helping global news publishers develop "new products and business models that fit the publishing marketplace the internet has enabled".

On audio programming with smart speakers and smartphones, he says with the Daily, the New York Times - which sees itself as disruptor not disruptee - now reaches more than two million daily listeners.

He says Google is making "large investments" with news publishers to develop the powerful new market for the spoken word, as well as "major investments" in tools for journalists in newsrooms. "We are applying our abilities with machine-learning to provide free tools that can give journalists the power they need to do their work in this digital world - and reduce some of the drudgery," he says, referencing tools such as Backlight to analyse large collections of documents, and Harvester to "turn a stack of restaurant code violations into a spreadsheet".

Additionally he cites support for fact check organisations including with Cekfakta in Indonesia and through GNI India Training Network ahead of this year's Indian elections.

"Last but not least, we continue to improve how we connect people to the most authoritative sources of reporting," he says, citing ranking updates and changes to search rater guidelines to "help better recognise original reporting". Google's systems are "expressly looking to identify those outlets that are more likely to create original feet-on-the-street reporting and give added emphasis to presenting their work", making use of technologies such as machine-learning.

Additionally, new tools help websites and publishers around the world have more control over what information made available on Google "in the interest of the work of your journalists and your brands being found by audiences".

On the EU's copyright directive, and France's implementation of it (effective October 24), Gingras says Google respects copyright and "the need to modernise it" as well as the need, "particularly in these times", to maintain open access to the internet itself, which he says is "core to the role of journalism in an open society".

"I marvel at the amazing variety of players producing quality journalistic content today - different areas of focus, different business models, different ways of connecting with readers," he says, mentioning Stuff New Zealand's business model expansion to include internet and electricity services, Taiwan digital pure players like News Lens "among the most-read news sites", and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong becoming a global digital voice and a leader in data journalism. A nod too, to "up and coming start ups" such as Malaysia-kini and India's The Ken "aiming to define once again the connection of journalism with its readers".

On the copyright laws, he explains Google's view on publishing headlines and previews, "highly useful" in cases such as recipes. New tools released last month enable all publishers to decide which elements of their content can be used.

For a second time, Gingras reminds his audience that Google doesn't accept payment, but he is at pains to remind them of the value Google Search brings: "In Europe, Deloitte estimates each click is worth between four and six Euro cents to large publishers. The numbers are huge."

He admits the "vast competitive marketplace of the internet" has disrupted the publishing industry, but says Google has helped with advertising tools where publishers receive "the vast majority of the revenue".

With "most publishers" using these, Google sent them $14.5 billion last year in an "efficient, performance-driven marketplace".

Of its role to help enable a stronger future for news, Gingras says Google has contributed "as much if not more than any private entity", distributing hundreds of millions through various initiatives to help publishers and journalists develop new revenue streams and explore innovations in gathering and presenting news.

"Google will continue to work alongside the news industry to address these challenges and opportunities... and will continue to invest in the future of journalism such that it can find models of independent sustainability," he said.

Announced at the conference was a second round of the Innovation Challenge in Asia Pacific, which earlier helped 23 news organisations.

There's a nod to the existence of Google's competitors when Gingras adds that journalism is best if it is independent in its forms of support: "I believe we can agree that it is important to be wary of reliance on the support of others, be they governments or partisan business interests or platforms whose success may not be as persistent or permanent as some might expect."

Elsewhere on the conference's second day, a Facebook-funded Newsroom Transformation Programme - to be executed via WAN-Ifra team-members next year - is being announced.

It's clear that Google isn't the only one that wants to be seen as the 'good guys' and not to blame for its success. Gingras urges collaboration - "partnering to confront challenges like misinformation, evolving business models and making use of new technology to further quality journalism" - and finishes with, "when journalism succeeds, we all do better."

Clearly however, it's likely to be journalism in a different context, pragmatically approached with both charm and realism. And the underlying but unspoken message to traditional publishers is that things are going to change; better get used to it.

Peter Coleman

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