Google to Journalists: Shut Up and Take the Money

Google to Journalists: Shut Up and Take the Money

After spending the better part of the last decade choking every possible cent from the digital media industry, Google’s finally getting the heat that it deserves. More and more people are realising the company’s monopoly over digital advertising is one of the culprits behind a staggering number of newsroom layoffs. Regulators are realising this digital dominance could constitute a serious antitrust issue. Combined, that means a massive headache for Google that can, in the company’s eyes, be solved with one thing: a decent payout.

The company’s latest attempt to claw back some goodwill among publishers is a three-year, billion-dollar partnership that’ll go toward the company’s newest product, the Google News Showcase. CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled the Showcase in a company blog post earlier today, promising it would highlight the “editorial curation of award-winning newsrooms” while also helping those newsrooms manifest “deeper relationships” with their readers.

Showcase is first debuting in the standalone Google News app for Android, with an accompanying rollout for iOS users coming “soon.” As the name implies, the app will literally start “showcasing” the top stories of the day as a carousel beneath the app’s personalised daily brief. Alongside the headlines, these stories will show summaries of the story in question, related articles, and more. And according to Pichai’s post, similar showcase-y features are set to come to Google’s Discover feed and Search engine “in the future.”

Graphic: Google, Getty Images Google News Australia
Graphic: Google, Getty Images

I know it sounds pretty similar to the average app most of us use for reading news on our phone right now. But Pichai wants you to believe that Showcase — which is being test run with roughly 200 “leading publications” across Canada, the EU and Latin America before a wider rollout in the future — isn’t just news. It’s the future of news:

The business model for newspapers — based on ads and subscription revenue — has been evolving for more than a century as audiences have turned to other sources for news, including radio, television and later, the proliferation of cable television and satellite radio.

The subtext here is that Google owns a piece of every part of those ecosystems that Pichai prattled off. When we started turning to podcasts for more of our news, Google tweaked its ad-serving systems to accommodate hyper-targeted audio ads. When we started getting more of our news through our smart televisions, those systems started adopting television-targeting capabilities, too. And when authorities in countries across the Atlantic forced Google’s hand into giving publishers a bigger cut of their ad money, the company’s proven it’s not above threatening to break its own news products for the region in retaliation.

With the Showcase announcement, Google seems to be under the impression that giving publishers some shiny new packaging for stories and calling it a “distinct approach” is enough to distract us — and regulators — from the ways its business model seems to be swallowing every source of news before our eyes.

The cut that Google typically takes from a given partnering publisher is a tightly guarded secret, but last year the company opened that black box a tiny bit to reveal that publishers generally earn about 69 cents ($0.96) for every dollar an advertiser spends on their site. According to Google’s own support page describing its publisher-facing platform, the company takes an even bigger cut from stories that might show up in Google’s search engine, with only 51% going back to the publisher in question.

And naturally, for folks that want to pay to support their local news sites, Google urges its publisher partners to give readers the option to subscribe with their Google account, promising them the tech typically delivers a serious uptick to subscription numbers. But when those readers subscribe through this system, the company takes a 30% cut of the cash that reader is paying for the first year, and 15% for every year after that.

While we can’t singlehandedly calculate what Google might be making off of the media industry in general (though people have tried), we do know how much Google’s raked in from advertising recently: 2019 investor docs from its parent company, Alphabet, report that Google pulling in about $US98 ($136) billion in revenue that year from “search and other” advertising.

Think about that in comparison to what it’s offering publishers: $US1 ($1) billion, split up over three years for a grand total of just over $US333 ($463) million per year. That’s not only a drop in Google’s massive money bucket, but it’s unlikely to even go where it’s most needed. While Pichai’s blog about Showcase pledges that this sum will be directed to “high-quality” publishers so they can show off their “high-quality” content, the two biggest ad giants of our time — Google and Facebook — have proven they don’t understand what phrase actually means. In 2019, Facebook’s dedicated news tab slid Breitbart’s stories among those that were deemed high quality and trustworthy. LGBTQ-focused sites that use Facebook’s or Google’s tools to keep their lights on have found their stories being erroneously flagged as pornographic or obscene, and demonetised — or eventually shuttered — as a result. Ditto for outlets geared toward Black or Latinx readers, since advertisers tend to earmark any story involving critical conversations about race or immigration as too “controversial” for their brands — and their money. It’s these tiny paper cuts that over time amount to massive bleeding wounds (or indefinite furloughs) for the publications involved.

I could go on here, but instead, let’s look at Pichai’s closing remarks on the Showcase announcement, when he calls digital media the “latest shift” in the way we consume our news:

The internet has been the latest shift, and it certainly won’t be the last. Alongside other companies, governments and civic societies, we want to play our part by helping journalism in the 21st century not just survive, but thrive.

The sorts of shtick Google’s been pulling here and abroad don’t point to a company that wants journalism to thrive, period. It points to a company that wants to thrive on that backs of journalists, and wants those journalists to take the paltry payout it’s offering in exchange. Personally, I think we’re better than that.

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