Google has announced the Digital News Initiative, “a partnership between Google and news publishers in Europe to support high quality journalism through technology and innovation,” which sees it working with eight European news organizations to help with product development and putting €150 million into a three-year “innovation fund.” This evident attempt by Google to mend its bridges with the European news publishing industry comes in the wake of years of complaints about the effects of Google’s services on traditional newspapers, and against a background of the European Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google’s search and Android businesses, with the threat that it could be widened to include other services.
Speaking in London, Carlo D’Asaro Biondo, Google’s European president of strategic partnerships, admitted that the company’s relationship with newspapers had been difficult, and that sometimes Google was to blame: “I firmly believe that Google has always wanted to be a friend and partner to the news industry, but I also accept we’ve made some mistakes along the way.”
In an attempt to win over European news publishers—and perhaps to minimize future complaints to the European Commission—D’Asaro Biondo laid out Google’s plans for the new Digital News Initiative. One strand involves helping European news publishers with product development: “We will create a publishers’ working group from across Europe to explore product developments aimed at increasing revenue, traffic and audience engagement.” Again, he admitted that Google had made mistakes here: “Over the years we have worked on a range of news-related initiatives, but we tended to work in isolation, and the feedback has been that Google can be complicated to work with, and at times unpredictable!”
Google will also increase its investment in training and research: “Through our newly established News Lab team we will bring dedicated training resources to European newsrooms for the first time.” This will includes grants to academic institutions carrying out research in the field of what Google calls “computational journalism,” without defining that term more precisely. It will extend its Google Journalism Fellowships program to Europe, “aimed at students interested in using technology to tell stories in new and dynamic ways.”
Finally, it will create a €150 million (~$167 million) fund with the goal of “stimulating and supporting innovation in digital journalism within the news industry in Europe, over the next three years.” This is perhaps the most obvious part of Google’s plan to spread some money around in an attempt to win over the European newspapers publishers, whether large or small: “Anyone working on innovation in online news in Europe will be able to apply, including national and regional publishers, new players and pure players.”
It’s not the first time Google has used this approach to placate critics. After a small-scale agreement witih Belgian news publishers in December 2012, Google went on in 2013 to set up the €60 million Digital Publishing Innovation Fund in France. Those deals were the result of a lawsuit by Belgian publishers and a French government threat to bring in a new tax on Google’s revenue from AdSense.
Sometimes, though, Google has proved less accommodating. A “snippet” tax in Spain led Google to shut down its Google News service there completely; in Germany, legal action by publishers seeking an 11 percent cut of gross revenue from Google News soon fell apart once Google stopped showing news snippets from their titles, which led to a huge decline in traffic.
Google’s latest charm offensive involves publishers of eight of Europe’s leading newspapers: The Guardian and The Financial Times in the UK, Die Zeit and FAZ from Germany, Les Echos from France, La Stampa from Italy, El País from Spain, and NRC Media from the Netherlands. Google will also be working with journalism organizations such as the European Journalism Center, the Global Editors Network, and the International News Media Association.
However, even with these latest partnerships, Google’s problems in Europe are far from over. The European Commissioner for Digital Economy & Society, Günther H. Oettinger, revealed that an EU-wide Google tax was one option under consideration. Another headache for the company is a passage in the leaked version of the EU’s Digital Single Market strategy, where the European Commission raises concerns about “the way Platforms use the information they acquire, [and] possible issues relating to fair remuneration of rights-holders.” Unfortunately for Google, clearly one of the “platforms” referred to there, its latest largesse is unlikely to be enough to make those much bigger threats go away.