Online News Association Australia held their monthly breakfast briefing event on Friday the 22nd of September, 2017 with Richard Gingras, Google News boss as the featured presenter. The full recap of the event includes:
- Technology and the impact on news – focusing on AMP and algorithmic trust signals for published work
- New revenue models such as subscriptions
- Whether Google is taking money from publishers
- Hints on the upcoming subscription model. Update: On October 3, Google relaxes rules on free stories and the introduction of a paywall subscription product.
Richard also participated in a Q&A with film producer, Anita Jacoby, where audience participants asked questions on the state of 24-hour news to tackling fake news and more.
Watch the video presentation above and click to obtain access to the full presentation transcript.
John Burgen: Hello. All right, good morning everybody and thanks for your patience. Good morning, one and all. Welcome to another breakfast briefing, I’m John Burgen, I’m one of the ONA conveners together with Neal Walker from News Corp, and Tory Maguire from Huffington Post, and Peter Freya UTS journalism. Thank you so much for being here bright and early, we’re running a little bit behind time but we’ve all had some nice fruits, some nice coffee, a lot of coffee I hope. It’s early for me at least, and we’re all ready for what promises to be an interesting discussion with Google’s Richard Gingras. I see a lot of familiar faces, which is great, I see a lot of new faces, which is even better, so for the newcomers and I know you’re all cracking for the main event, I’ll keep it really short and sweet and talk to you about what the ONA is.
The ONA is basically a not-for-profit association of digital journalists, technologists, innovators and platform specialists. The idea is to bring a whole host of like-minded people together to share ideas and we’re going to do exactly that today here at Google. We extend a special thank you to Nick Hopkins for making that possible and his team, and of course Hustle Media at the back for capturing the whole shebang. Thank you for that.
Now speaking of innovation, Richard Gingras, I beg your pardon, has been involved in digital media since 1980 and Richard, I hope I have done my research, the age of steam-powered modems. [laughter] In that role he guides Google strategies relating to the media ecosystem overseas, many of Google’s news and media related products. Richard who was a key instigator in the recently announced accelerated mobile pages, AMP project which is an effort to make web content instantaneous, and in doing so, preserve the vitality and utility and the openness of the world wide web.
He is also a co-founder of the Trust Project, a global effort within the journalism community to ensure that high-quality journalism is recognized for the credibility it deserves. Here, I think we can all get behind that. He helped found Salon.com, he has worked for Apple and he’s done a lot, lot more, but I did promise to keep this very short. Richard’s going to share his thoughts with us and then he’ll be joining the conversation by another accomplished innovator, a television veteran, and ACMA member, Anita Jacoby. But for now, please make welcome, Richard Gingras.
Richard Gingras: Good morning, thank you, thank you for being here. Excuse me and thank you for the opportunity to share thoughts with you today. A couple things, yes, I’ve been around since dirt was invented. By the way, I should note that the steam-powered modems were really very cool. [laughter] Before that it was the sail powered modems, and they really sucked, except in Australia here because you get a lot of wind, at least I think. Stop Richard.
I’d like to touch on a few things, first of all, probably best just to give a few more notes about my role at Google, so that you understand what I do. There are several dimensions of it, one dimension is indeed how we surface news on our different user experiences, whether that be Google Search or Google News or new experiences like now, the assistant and others that will be developing, often with a core objective that is how do we drive engagement against the publisher content, how do we do right by publishers content.
The other dimension of it which over the last few years has probably become an even larger dimension is our efforts to help either technologically or through other means to enable a healthier open environment for news on the web, which we all I hope we all believe is absolutely crucial, it’s the foundation for everything that we do. I also think it’s important to share a couple of notes about why does Google do this. Today you can’t really have a conversation about the news business without somebody raising the term platforms. In a way that always not terribly polite but that’s okay we’re big boys.
People should criticize us if we deserve criticism, we should be adult enough to deal with that. One thing I want to know is when we talk about platforms, the only part about it that annoys me is it tends to be used as a generic. The platforms as if all the platforms are alike and they’re not and I don’t say they’re not in the sense that one’s good and the other is evil or whatnot is that they all obviously address the ecosystem in different ways. Apple is obviously a proprietary IOS and a hardware provider with a very controlled environment.
That’s how they build their business, that’s likely how they will continue to build their business. A look at Facebook platform clearly a platform, clearly an extraordinarily influential one in the ecosystem. They’re too it’s a proprietary environment in a sense a walled garden in their objectives, they’ve done an extraordinary job of creating a great product, then a lot of us are addicted to, more so than many of us would like including me. That’s great but it is again it’s a different environment, it’s a walled garden and then there’s Google. We are Platform and yes we’re quite large, no matter how we look at it clearly influential by intent or accident for that matter.
The difference for Google, frankly it’s the reason I work there because if you look at the course of my career, my whole career has been about evolution and media. In fact my first gig actually my literally my first gig at college was driving a taxi cab in Washington DC begging for someone to jump in and say please follow that car they never did but I worked for PBS in Washington the Public Broadcasting Service in Washington and I work for a fellow by the name of Hartford Gunn who I’m actually initially I was a clerk typist but I ended up working for Hartford Gunn who is the chairman and founder of PBS and the founder of public broadcasting in the United States.
He was a great visionary and public broadcasting though they didn’t have a boatload of money is true with public broadcasters typically he always wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology. In whatever means the first one was the use of satellites to network television programs around the country before that it was all done by phone lines, it was very expensive, he managed to find a way for PBS along with HBO to put up the first satellites for delivery. He made a point to me then that I’ve never forgotten which was Richard if you’re keen on influencing the future of media, he said it’s all about the technology. Not that technology controls everything but technology enables things, it sets the frameworks it sets the ground rules, that stuck with me in a very big way, that’s why I ultimately went on and did my first online experiences which were in broadcast Teletext which some of you may remember interactive services over broadcast. It was how we could take it, use technology to create new information systems, new ways for people to engage with what’s going on in the world. That’s what always excited me, that frankly drove my career from that point on.
When I say Google is a different platform. We are a child of the open web right that’s where our business started that’s where 98% of our business resides to this day. Google Search is obviously a powerful and popular service but its relevance in value is entirely based on the fact that there is a rich ecosystem of content on the web to the extent that ecosystem degrades, I don’t think that’s good for society, I know it’s not good for Google search. Similarly, our ad platforms which something over two million publishers use is all on the open web, to the extent that the open web were to deteriorate and become less of a component in our societies information space then that’s not going to be good for Google either.
That drives a lot of our strategies, again it’s always important, yes we have high-minded ideals, we feel all of this is important for society but I think it’s also useful for people to understand what are the driving business objectives as well. We’re not just doing this because we think it’s a good idea when I’m just doing it to develop better relationships with publishers, we’re doing it because it’s really core to what we do. All of my efforts over the last half a dozen years have been around just that is how do we continuously rethink the ecosystem of knowledge and expression specifically with a focus on news and journalism.
As you know these are extraordinarily different times we live in an extraordinarily different world. We can’t say that enough there’s not– you can’t even be hyperbolic about that notion. We have basically swapped out the central nervous system of our culture, that’s been hugely impactful in many ways positively. I don’t think any of us would want to go back to pre-internet days, it’s been extraordinary, love developing and offering resources of information to people around the world who never had them before. All right everything from people being able to access medical information or farmers in regions able to access market information, they’re not taken advantage of by middlemen an untoward way, it’s powerful.
We have indeed given free expression to everyone in the United States I think of it as the First Amendment come to life, that’s a very powerful thing. Of course, it’s not all positive. Free expression generally as I often point out to folks in the United States the First Amendment doesn’t have the word truth in it. By intent, there’s no law in the United States that defines what a journalist is, by intent if you define a journalist then probably you’re constraining free speech in one form or another. Dramatically different space, it has its challenges, we see today when we look at it from say a political perspective it is enabled many more voices. Some good, some not so good it is allowed people indeed to find information to support their thoughts and ideas good or bad.
Throughout the world if they want affirmation, they’ll find it if they want information, they’ll find it. This obviously brings challenges as we see. The term fake news in a sense comes out of this with people with very nefarious intent looking to influence the ecosystem or people who are just have political intent are looking to leverage the ecosystem to support what they’re trying to do whether we agree with them or not which is why many of these questions are challenging, that’s why all of this all of these challenges and opportunities is drives certainly my thinking, others like me at Google and beyond Google in terms of how we drive the evolution of the ecosystem.
That’s crazy as I often joke we used to surf the Web now we can barely slog through it with our mud boots that’s a problem the ad behaviors have gotten way out of hand. We’re in the process of soiling the commons that we all rely on. It is indeed a tragedy of the commons bad actors doing unfortunate things with ads and it destroys the ecosystem for all of us. That’s the objective of an app for ads is how do we re-architect to the web for speed. How do we re-architect ads for better performance and more logical access and rendering and create as well or help create new advertising types that are less annoying but hopefully equally compelling.
Then what causes people to reach for ad blockers today. That’s been a great effort I’m always cautious the mission has not yet been accomplished. I’m extremely pleased to note that now we have something close to four and a half billion documents in our index from over 1.1 million domains around the world. We see millions of fresh docs every day. It’s been great to see that level of adoption on the monetization side we’re making good progress there. 70% of publishers are seeing higher ROI’s, higher viewability rate and so on make progress but changing out ecosystems is very hard.
I equate it to swapping out the engines on a jetliner in flight and in this case doing that with an army of 5000 stakeholders but we’ve managed to make it work at least so far. I’m very pleased with that I’m pleased also to now see more sites actually shifting to amp as the canonical using the progressive web apps to create native app experiences without a native app. That’s powerful not only for the performance but for easing the engineering burden on publishing organizations that are not over-resourced on the engineering side. That’s been a very important effort and continues to move forward and I encourage all of you to continue to engage.
We continue to evolve the format and its capabilities on a daily basis. E-commerce firms have really gone whole hog into amp not surprising these are guys who are as tuned to performance as anyone because every second that fulfillment experience the purchase experience takes is a greater opportunity for people to abandon so that’s great distribution. The other area is as I were talking earlier we live in an ecosystem where people are getting information from all different sources, not necessarily all legitimate ones.
It is a media environment that is quite leveling which you can say from a Democratic perspective is a really good thing but its obviously also a challenge as I often say. In this environment, the New York Times is on equal footing with a blogger and I don’t say that in a negative way about bloggers but it is indeed the case. We see continued declines in trust in media we see continuing issues with not just fake news but content that misrepresents itself misrepresents fact and context. It’s important there too that we step back and think well how do we evolve the architecture of the ecosystem to help address this.
That was why we– Sally Lambourn and I got the Trust project off the ground. Interestingly, that just started as an idea I mean I’ve known Sally for years she is a superb journalist and an ethicist and has always worked for her entire career on working with news organizations about ethics policies and behaviors and so on. We talked about this the challenges of this ecosystem and we came up with this notion of let’s see if we can start a conversation about trust. I said how do we refer to it and I said well let’s call it the trust project and she says but it’s not really a project at all and I said well no it’s not yet but if we call it a project maybe it will become one.
Then to our surprise happened there are now some 90 organizations around the world news organizations involved with the effort it’s open to anyone who wants to participate. We have a governing council that includes Marty Baron from the Washington Post, Mario Calabrese from Land of Publica, David Walmsley from the Toronto Globe and Mail it, and many others. Sally and the group will be coming out with their recommendations in a month or two that first phase recommendations and the whole idea there was both to understand how people develop a sense of trust and affinity for a particular news source.
Then we think how can we provide greater degrees of transparency about how news organizations work. Again, not enough to say trust us because we’re the New York Times because anybody can put up a site and call themselves a news site unless you’re pretty knowledgeable you don’t know the difference. It’s got to include things like encouraging and all of this these are just recommendations in encouraging the visibility of things like ethics policies encouraging the visibility of mastheads and ownership, encouraging more transparency about the reporters, their backgrounds, what’s the nature of their expertise? Can I access their full body of work?
This is important all of these things are very important not just to help drive better consumer understanding which I’ll come back to but also to help provide additional signals for those of us who run algorithms and are trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Right, I want those more safe, I want to have a better opportunity at Google to understand where there is resident expertise in the ecosystem. When I ran Salon media Glenn Greenwald was working at Salon then great journalist. I left he left shortly thereafter and went to the Guardian he then went on to the intercept.
Google and really internally doesn’t have a good understanding of Glenn Greenwald’s expertise for instance, in areas of national surveillance across all those brands. Right, Ezra Klein, I was interviewing Ezra Klein of Vox once and Google and I said thanks for being here he said why wouldn’t I come I need to Google juice he has just founded Vox. I said and he said well that’s not fair Vox.com might be a new domain for news but you’ve got 12 years of experience behind you. Your reputation as a journalist should convey to the domain just as theoretically the reputation of a domain conveys to the journalist right.
We can and should do better here both as an ecosystem and as a platform running search engines. A lot of people talk today about the need for more media literacy and no one can disagree with that. I will also point out that none of it not enough of it will ever happen. One of the things that we’ve been talking about with folks is how do you create– how do you design new products that in itself self-teach media literacy. I mean media literacy comes down to two things it comes down to expertise and motivation. I can understand their expertise and if I can understand their motivation that’s a big help.
The Washington Post has recently started a much more crisp labeling of different article types, good thing. Let me step onto a last because I don’t want to go on too long I could clearly go on for just about ever but the last thing I want to talk about is monetization. It’s obviously clear today that advertising on content properties is not necessarily enough particularly in news. It’s not necessarily true generically if you’re running a gardening site you can probably do very well with gardening advertising or food advertising on a food site.
News is always been a difficult– digitally has always been a difficult space because my simple example layer is Tiffany’s in New York has for its entire history advertised in the front section of The New York Times almost every day. It can be up against an article about Darfur but there’s an ad for Tiffany’s and a $25,000 diamond bracelet. They never do that online and when I ran Salon it was clear the CPM for news were way lower than the CPM against other self-content areas.
I went and we expanded and we created like food sections in South sections so on and so forth. When we were in the food sections we were competing against dedicated food sites that had a much more compelling commercial proposition for advertisers than we did. It’s not friendly to news content and news content in a sense has gotten isolated where it has to have its own business model and advertising isn’t quite going to fully get there. The New York Times has done well with native advertising but still, it’s not going to get there.
Subscriptions come into play and I think the good thing about subscriptions is we’ve seen over the last year or two a greater degree of interest in the marketplace for people to subscribe to quality content. Where we’re seeing good growth there.
Again, the battle has not been won, and I don’t think this is entirely an effect of the Trump bump, though I’m sure people are very happy to see the results of the Trump bump.
New York Times now exceeds two and a quarter million digital subscribers, and I should point out that that’s higher than the number of than their paid circulation in print ever. That’s a very good sign their objectives are to get to five million subscribers. As a national, international brand they have good opportunity there, but it’s not just them. Mediapart in Paris and we Pinellas operation I think has been absolutely brilliant, he came out of Lomond, they have 140,000 paying subscribers. It’s a hard paywall site. They’re profitable they employ 50 journalists. He’s been exquisitely clear about his mission, what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re not trying to achieve. They don’t care about sports; they don’t care about movies they care about hard-nosed journalism. They do these exquisite transparency reports every year where they disclose everything about what they do in all of their economics, as their means of developing a good engaged relationship with people who support them, powerful lessons there.
I mentioned that to say that, we at Google as a result of all this have over the last year been focusing on, what can we do to help Drive subscription growth, since that’s obviously so necessary. We’ve been working hard on that we’re going to have some announcements in a few weeks. I have been– spent a good part of the last month briefing publishers on these plans, which means like I just leave a trail of leaks. There was an article in The Financial Times this morning about what we’re going to do. Let me just quickly outline the objectives and but hopefully leave something for the announcement in a few weeks.
We try basically to look at the full funnel of discovery to payment. All right how do we take and what can we do along that path? It starts at the discovery final such with brand discovery and sampling. We’ve long had a news publisher focused sampling program called first click free, it’s been around for 10 years. It was designed to give a pass to news publishers against our anti cloaking policy which says, show the search engine what the usual see. The rationale for that, by the way, is all the spammy sites that say, here are some recipes of healthy vegetable dishes that’ll let you live to 150 years old, and then you go to the site, and that’s like diet pills and aging pills and so on and so forth. Obviously a paywall, where we want to index the full article, but the user only sees a portion of it is in a sense a cloak. We said, “We’ll give you the pass on cloaking, but you should sample.” That’s not a really a surprise, and because everyone knows they’d have to sample. I mean even in the print world you’ve sampled.
We’re going to evolve the sampling program because what we had there was a bit too structured given the flexibility in the market. If you run a financial services publication with high-value content to business users who pay for the subscription out of their expense accounts, that’s a very different sampling model than if you’re a general interest publication. We want to give publishers the flexibility to tune their sampling approaches accordingly.
That’ll be one step another step is, we’re looking at ways where we can use our knowledge about the ecosystem and about users along with the publisher’s knowledge about their users, to see if we can’t help identify where targets of opportunity in the market are, what economists might call propensity to pay. We’ll see if we can make some progress there with our machine learning systems. It’ll be interesting to see, I’m careful of what expectations I set.
The other two steps are, A, how do we take friction out of the purchase process? One simple way of looking at that from our end is, you’re a publisher, and you’re obviously had a lot of prospects out there, we have a lot of users who have signed in accounts we know who they are. We have a lot of users who purchase things through Google, we have their credit cards. That can ease the friction of the process, if you’re subscribing to something, and it says enter your credit card, well that’s yet one more reason to say, “Oh I don’t have the time right now forget about it I’ll do it later,” whereas if it just pops up and says, is this the card you want to use? Fine. Same thing with email addresses. If we just pop up a list says, here the email addresses we have here, which one are you going to use? Fine. How do you just eliminate abandonment in the process as much as possible?
The last thing that we want to do is, once someone has subscribed. Is give publishers the facility to let us know that they are a subscriber so that we can recognize that entitlement and do a better job of tuning our experiences to make sure that the subscribers get the full value of that subscription. We see of doing things like in Google search. If you do a search for, hurricane Harvey or whatever, we’ll come back with our organic results. If we also notice articles about hurricane Harvey from publications you subscribe to we’ll insert something into the UI that says and here are articles from products that you subscribe to. If you can grow engagement against those, you increase the likelihood that they’ll resubscribe and maybe the next time at the full price versus a discounted offer.
Those are the things that we’re thinking about in the subscription space, I like to think there is significant value there. I’m always cautious in setting expectations, as I always say here with this regard, I think the one thing we also have to keep in mind and this is I think all some of the things that you think about, I hope you’re thinking about. Again this is a completely different marketplace for information, than the one 40 years ago. Which means that you have to be offering a product that people can clearly understand the value of. What does concern me in all honesty, is I see many legacy publishers who frankly the products they’re offering in this space is far too similar what they offered 40 years ago, which frankly is not necessarily the strong value proposition, it’s not at all the strong value proposition that it once was.
Dallas Morning News in 1985 was the internet for Dallas. You got everything from them, the movie times, the sports scores, and the local news. A lot of those things obviously people can get a lot of places. Like I said about my example with having a food section on salon, I can get food on a lot of places. What’s the value proposition? How do you understand your audience and your market such that you can key in on what their needs and interests are and tune your marketing messages accordingly? That’s why I mentioned media part because I think they’ve done such an effective job of that. Not the only ones, there are great examples of success there it does take effort, it does take research, it does take product development innovation to find those solutions. You guys know this, so I don’t want to go on on that.
Again I think there is a great opportunity here if one knows how to go about actually harvesting it. With that, the only I’ll say is these are exciting times, these are extraordinarily challenging times, as I’ve often pointed out given the nature of the internet and free expression, it’s challenging the very foundations of democracy. How did democracies survive and thrive in an environment of unfettered free expression. Sounds paradoxical, but when people can find their silos, when they can find affirmation, versus information. Gets increasingly difficult for a democracy to do what it’s supposed to do, which is find consensus between opposing points of view. How do you do that in an environment where it’s so easy to create silos of thought of alternate realities? How do you bridge alternate realities versus alternate opinions?
That’s a challenge, and we’re only going to get there to the extent that we can continue to involve the news space, and news organizations and their content, so that we can develop a bridge that’s based on commonly understood facts. Very easy, but it’s absolutely crucial. I don’t think there’s anything more important that any of us are doing. I only think I’ll say in closing is, I just so appreciate the work that you do, I’ve been in the space a long time. It’s just extraordinary the passion people bring to it, and I just feel ever thankful every day that I have the opportunity to do what I do and to do it with people like you in this profession. Thank you very much.
John: Thank you very much Richard, lots and lots to unpack there, and who better to help us do it than Anita Jacoby. Anita is a broadcast executive with extensive experience in media and communications. She’s got a background in journalism, she is a journalist. She’s an award-winning television producer, and she’s currently a member of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Anita has created literally hundreds of hours I think of original content for all free-to-air networks and Foxtel. Most recently, she was the managing director of IT Studios Australia, where she was responsible for the global operations of this company. Anita has managed other films ahead of that alongside Andrew Denton, co-creating original programs including Enough Rope, the Gruen Transfer, and Elders. She also has held senior production roles on shows including 60 Minutes, Sunday and Witness. Please welcome Anita Jacoby.
Anita Jacoby: Richard, for Christ
Richard: Right behind you.
Anita: Yes, that’s good. Thanks, John. Hi, everyone. Thank you, Richard, for such a far-ranging speech that I was traversed a lot of the areas that I was going to touch on. What I’d like to do is because I know that what we’re going to do is have a chat for about 15, 20 minutes and then what I wanted to do is open it up for Q&A and where people can deep-dive into the things that they particularly want to know. I’m going more broad-based.
What I wanted to start with is, last year at the Washington’s Museum Institute, you posed what you described as the most important question of all which is, what does journalism mean in the world? What’s the answer?
Richard: What I think it is, is giving society, giving citizens the tools and information they need to be good citizens. That’s always been my favorite definition of what it’s about. That’s the purpose of the fourth estate, is how do you form an independent perspective, help people understand what’s going on in the world and in their world and the relevant public policy considerations that they need to be engaged with. I don’t think it’s anything less than that.
Anita: During your speech, you were just talking about the fact that one of our greatest challenges as journalists is trust. Having this cacophony of noise and information and sound, how do we get that principle journalism out there? I think you touched on it, but could you elaborate on that because I think it’s a really critical issue in what we’re facing today.
Richard: I’m going to just share some personal thoughts here. I think it gets down to the mission of any specific publication. Would do you want to be and how do you want to achieve it? What is the best way to achieve it? One of my concerns about the media space, and again there’s nothing new here, these are behaviours that have been around since the Federalist Papers and the printing press, what does concern me is, I think we’re seeing far more partisanship in news than we’ve seen before and in news outlets than we’ve seen before, and/or if it’s not a partisan outlet, we have seen with the dawn of internet, a greater degree of opinion content.
I had this interesting discussion with one of my colleagues, see again trying to think about trust, how to trust models form, what was different 40 years ago? There’s this interesting observation, take a major metropolitan newspaper 40 years ago and take one today, I mentioned they were the internet of that day, so if you looked at it, people used it for everything. They used it for the sports scores, the stock quotes, the event listings and so on and so forth. In fact, that was largely what they used it for.
A small percentage of newspaper circulation actually read the front section of news. We had obviously liked them all but the truth is it was a modest section. I mentioned last night because I have someone reminding this the other day and said, “Why is the new section in the newspaper on the outer section?” Well, that’s just to protect it from the newsboy tossing it in the puddle so it doesn’t damage the inside sections where the money is made.
Anita: So true.
Richard: [laughs] When I think about that and the whole point was, he said is that their development of trust in that newspaper was largely based on the mundane facts it provided. It got the sports score right, it got the stock quote right, it got the weather right and that sense of trust carried over to the news. You take that to today where obviously the product is different, because content is available in so many places. The sports scores aren’t part of it, the weather isn’t necessarily part of it, there’s none of that. The mundane facts have largely been separated from the news content.
The other shift is, back in 1980, the amount of editorial and opinion was tiny. It might have been 3% of the entire content of the paper, the editorial page and the op-editorial page. In today’s world, you even look at the Washington Post, great paper, I don’t mean to single them out, you could say this for any — I suspect right now we’re seeing news publications where it’s 60, 70% opinion perspective editorial and 25, 35% that’s fact-based, objective news coverage.
Anita: Do you think that’s going to continue to detract north?
Richard: I think very frankly it’s going to depend on the specific intense of individual publications. One thing about the media space and the news space is like it is tremendously varied and always will be. I sometimes think I have kind of naive and simplistic desires in terms of what I want to see from news organizations here. I had dinner with Marty Baron a while ago and I said, “If your objective” which he likes my definition of journalism. “If your objective is to give people the knowledge to be good citizens and to give them objective, fact-based content, why do you even waste time with an editorial page if all that does is actually dilute their perception of you as a source of trusted information?” which he agreed with, but he also answered, he says, “Unfortunately, they don’t report to me”, which is true. They reported to the publisher.
I think it depends. I like to think that there’s a hunger out there for people to find sources of information that actually do help them be knowledgeable and thoughtful without presuming what they should conclude about an issue. In fact, I have, inside Google search as we continue to evolve our experiences, there’s a philosophy I’ve been pushing which is saying like on Google Search, we are proud of the fact that people come to us with questions and we can give them answers.
You can come to us and say, “How tall is Jim Comey that FBI director?” We’ll come back and say, “Six feet, eight inches tall”. Maybe that’s why Trump had such a hard time with him, he was taller than he was. For most questions, there is no singular answer. I like to think our role in search on a query like that is to say how do we give people the tools and information they need to form their own critical thinking about a subject and hopefully come to a more informed conclusion without us telling them what to do by presenting certain articles versus not.
Can that philosophy carry over to news publications as well? It obviously does in many cases.
Anita: Do you think we can stimulate more new models like fact-checking and what might they look like? What might those models look like?
Richard: Yes, that’s a great question. I was going to mention fact-checking because thereto, in re-architecting news, I think it’s important to think about what are the new models. Fact-check modules, I think is a powerful new model. I think it’s particularly powerful out in the ecosystem of the web. I think it’s hugely powerful in search. I am eager to see that ecosystem expand. I want people, and not just in news, I want people who come to doctor Google for medical information about some bizarre remedy to have the fact-check there from a news organization or the mail clinic saying like, “Wow, here’s the science, define this. Can we help in that regard?”
I think the other area of significant value is the use of data, data journalism, to supplement the understandable anecdotal nature of news coverage with statistical context. I think that’s so important today because I mention to folks when the parliamentary attack happened in the United States our cable news networks went wall-to-wall for three days. Now, it was a sad event, four people died but I can also tell you on each of those three days, there were mass murders of four or more people in the United States that didn’t make it into the news. How do we address disproportionate coverage?
How do we address giving context to the incidents that happen? I think we unintentionally — Obviously, politicians do this all the time, we drive fear based on a misunderstanding of true context. One of the things I’ve noticed, what I would love to see metaphorically is why doesn’t the weather report I see include metrics to tell me about the health of my community beyond whether or not I need a raincoat.
Anita: Is that how you think it can add to journalistic values in the way that we present information?
Richard: Yes, absolutely.
Anita: Right, okay.
Richard: I think hopefully when I say that, like that weather report that tells me about the crime report on my community, the average cost of housing, the air quality index, with publications going towards subscription, what I also hope — Talking to publisher and editors, they concur, is that they can be freed from the clickbait notion and begin to offer things that have value that aren’t necessarily clicked on.
Those key metrics that help me understand my community is not necessarily a click magnet, but can we get into the background of their thought, what’s important and not important in my community so that next time I go to the polls I’m not voting based on a mis-based fear of terrorism in Kansas versus the state of my schools in Kansas.
Anita: Are we doing enough of that, or clearly not?
Richard: Look, I’m heartened by the tremendous progress. I think there are a lot of great organizations doing really great work around the world whether it’s La Nación Buenos Aires or ProPublica in New York, but it’s hard and we want to see more of it. One of the things that we’re looking at our end is can we provide additional tools, data streams to make it easier for journalists to work with data, to be able to provide that context? A journalist writing about a home invasion shouldn’t have to do a bunch of research to find out how many home invasions occurred in the last two years in that community.
That should be more easily available to just plug in. I think there’s a lot more opportunity and progress to be made. I’m pleased that there are some really, really smart people in in the environment who are doing really good work.
Anita: This is a real opportunity, is what you’re saying?
Richard: It’s tremendous. I think it’s crucial.
Anita: Yes, you talked in your address about the issue of fake news, and people needing to have a level of trust in news services. It certainly attracted plenty of attention. Here in Australia, we’ve got a government inquiry in the Senate having a look at the whole state of the journalism industry. I’m just wondering when it comes to issues of fake news, what is Google doing to ensure the algorithms are right?
Richard: Excuse me, we’re doing a lot. Obviously, it’s a crucially important issue. I don’t think we’re going to ever see the end of it particularly as nefarious actors, be they state actors or political actors, who are going to use and abuse the ecosystem to drive people’s perceptions of things without question. We see that. There’s a tremendous amount of sophistication going on from folks like again, nefarious states. Clearly, we need to continue improve what we do. In truth, we didn’t have a huge number of instances.
Anyway, the one that people often cite on Google was the article that we surfaced far too high that Trump had won the popular vote. Interestingly, we didn’t surface the Pope endorsement of Trump. That was a social network thing. It didn’t come up on search. I won’t divert into this but fake news in social networks is a different ball game than fake news on search or news. They’re both hard, but they’re very, very different challenges. Obviously, we’ve worked to continue to evolve our algorithms.
We’ve continued to evolve how we develop signals about the nature of a site and their histories, how we work to make sure people don’t abuse and use our ad platforms to support bad content but these are hard questions. One thing I will point out, I don’t want to go too long here but I have also been unsettled by folks who, I would like to think would be a bit more thoughtful about this, who in a facile way say, “Google you have to fix the fake news problem”. Let’s be careful of what you’re saying.
“You should not have surfaced that content. That should not be in your index”. There are real challenges here because, for the most part, when you say that like the first question is, is their expression illegal? It’s one for us to say to not rent content to support quality, it’s another thing entirely to say it shouldn’t be there. This is legal, free expression. Now, in some countries, the definitions of hate speech vary, and obviously, if it’s illegal we’ll work to address it, but it’s not illegal expression.
I had people say, “Well, yes, but you should have higher values than that”. I said, “Really? I don’t think we should have higher. I think our values are around supporting free expression, and are supporting what’s legal in different countries”. Similarly, with when you say, “Well, how did Russia get away with buying ads on Facebook?” Well, suffice to say Vladimir Putin didn’t buy the ads with his Visa cards.
Anita: He probably didn’t.
Richard: It took a tremendous amount of forensics to figure that out. They’re still figuring it out.
Anita: Yes. Now here in Australia, in the print industry, about two and a half thousand journalists have lost their jobs since about 2011, which is about a quarter of the total of print journalists. Many industry analysts view Google as killing the goose that laid the golden egg. What should media companies be doing differently, and what is Google doing to help fix this issue?
Richard: Well, the things we’re doing are all the things I’ve talked about. Look, the notion that we kill the golden goose I think, frankly, is factually wrong, and thereto. Folks are writing about the industry, please analyze it carefully, and be careful about what statements you make about it. Google did not kill the news industry. The fact that Google has ad products have been very successful, yes. Look, what changed the news industry is the internet. What changed the news industry is that we went from expensive distribution that could be afforded by few to virtually free distribution that anyone could participate in.
That changed the dynamics, that allowed Craig Newmark to do Craigslist. He didn’t even know that was going to be something significant and any of you who know Craig Newmark you can tell that right away. He didn’t go into this grand scheme of destroying the newspaper industry. He just thought he was doing a good thing for the community of San Francisco and he was, so the dynamics changed. Interestingly, in some of these cases, the parts are just being moved around. We know that for instance classifieds were news, it was always news in even a newspaper.
News was paid for via cross-subsidies of advertising against soft content or services like classifieds. Now, interestingly, classifieds which helped make the journalism possible in some companies that same publishing company has taken the classifieds and spun it out into its own entity. It’s not on its balance sheet. They got it over here but over here obviously, it’s a more restricted model, so things have moved around. Clearly, the news industry is continuing through a very challenging transition. Obviously, we all hope that we can positively get through this to a better understanding of how things can work in this ecosystem.
We do recognize that, as I said in the beginning, that it’s very much in our interest to help make that happen. I will step back and not accept what I think are poorly non-fact-based accusations of what Google has done. Siphoning off ad revenue, we didn’t siphon off ad revenue, we happened upon our good fortune. Larry and Sergey did not create Google Search with the knowledge that it was going to be this massively successful ad product. They didn’t. In fact, somebody else did it first. Search ads are powerful. You understand the intent of the user. I’m going to have a look for a refrigerator, what a nice place to put an ad. It’s how things evolve.
Interestingly, and I’ll stop here, but if you actually trace back media history particularly in the United States, the golden era of American newspapering was triggered by the disruptive effects of television. Television by 1953 was taking 20% of the ad market in the United States. Thousands of newspapers in the United States closed because all of that revenue was coming out of newspapers, and what it did, the quote positive result of that a lot close, the ones left standing were left in very, very powerful positions. They were near monopolies in their markets. The newspapers during the golden era were huge beneficiaries of the disruption of television.
Now, obviously, technology changes, there are further disruptions, things change again. There are lessons in history, but unfortunately, there aren’t always answers to the problems.
Anita: Just quickly because I know we’re going to open it up to Q&A, there were a few broadcast journalists in here, so what lessons should we be learning from what’s happening to the print industry today?
Richard: I think many of the same things because clearly, they’ll be disruptive effects there. You just have to look at consumption behaviors, look at consumption behaviors of younger generations. You look at the wire cutters. How are they accessing, how are they finding video, how are they using video? One has to thereto really rethink, are you about providing a television channel, or are you about creating compelling video that gets into the heads and hands of users in myriad different ways? It’s never too soon to start innovating in that regard.
Anita: Thank you, Richard, we’ll throw it open for some questions from the floor, over here.
Audience Member 1: Hi, I’m from the ABC, fascinating talk thank you very much. Just had a question about payables and news. Obviously, it’s really important to get people paying for news, and supporting that business model but what happens when the vast majority can’t afford to pay for news? What kind of news do they then get and is that dangerous for democracy?
Richard: I think that’s a very fair question. Of course, that too is not a new question. In the golden era of news and newspapering, it’s not like everyone subscribed because they couldn’t afford to. One of the good things on the internet is, no matter how effective one is with payrolls, the content is going to be porous. The content is going to seep out. I remember back to — Didn’t I tell you how old I was. When I was working for PBS in 1974, I was purchasing documentaries, and I purchased a documentary about I.F. Stone.
I.F. Stone was really one of the original mud-raking journalists. He was in his later years. He had a newsletter called I.F. Stone’s Weekly. He was a fascinating character.
Anita: Did he do Watergate? Was that one of his-
Richard: No, a lot of his key reporting was on the Vietnam War.
Richard: He did a lot of breakthrough reporting on politics in Washington, on public policy in Washington. The circulation of his newsletter was like less than 10,000 people, but he had an impact on news agenda. The stories he covered and broke through in myriad ways. I think of him as the original blogger. I think those dynamics will still be in place. I think the one thing that is clear is that there is a tremendous amount of free content available on the web, and I don’t think that’s going to change. There will be a lot of paywall stuff, but there will be a lot of free stuff as well. At least, that’s my hope.
Audience Member 2: That’s often fake news.
Richard: I wouldn’t say that’s often fake news. There are a lot of good content properties out there that aren’t free. By the way, the day I met I.F. Stone, he had just gotten delivery of a Xerox machine and he was through the roof in joy that he could actually print something at the click of a button. That was his technological breakthrough. [laughs]
Anita: Richard, Olivia, over here.
Olivia: I just wanted to ask, in regards to the rise of 24-hour news, and how you think that impacts these notions of trust?
Richard: I think it’s the question that we all know is is it about being faster? Is it about being accurate? How quickly do you respond, and how quickly do you — And then can you, not only accurately cover, but set the tone of the story? Again, it’s the nature of the beast but I think that will evolve somewhat. I hope it does. Not entirely. I think maybe, again, if we do see greater progress in terms of subscriptions, that might change as well, because I think if you’re more focused on the value of your product for your subscribers, you’re a little bit less focused on quick clicks from search or news or other places. We live in a real-time world and obviously the other challenge there is everyone knows that, including the public figures, as we so bloody well know in the United States. [laughs]
Anita: A question here.
Audience Member 4: Okay Richard, thank you very much for being here and thanks to the ONA for organizing this today. I run a small brand new business journalism startup called stockhead.com.au. I have a question for you. It seems almost every week here that the relationship, particularly between newspaper companies in Australia and Google and Facebook deteriorates. There’s lots of criticism from outside, I guess towards Google. It’s obviously around concerns that advertisers are moving more budget towards search and social. My own view though, actually, is that publishers should be perhaps selling Google advertising, and perhaps Facebook advertising as well to their to their clients.
I wonder actually whether that is perhaps a way in which the relationships could be repaired. I wondered if you could comment on that relationship between the two sides, how you think that might be repaired in the future? And whether or not you’re seeing news publishers sell Google advertising to their clients, and whether that could be a way, moving forward?
Richard: We certainly have many and varied commercial relationships with just about every major publisher in the world, and are always looking for new ways to make those relationships work. As I mentioned, people refer to the duopoly and the large percentage of advertising that Facebook and Google command. What I always point out is when people look at those figures, they don’t necessarily know that some 11, 12 billion dollars of Google’s revenue is the 70% of rev shares that we push back to the publishers. No question, there has been friction.
Frankly, it is, I think, dramatically better today than it was even five years ago, at least on average. I do spend a lot of my time meeting with publishers around the world. We have, in our efforts over the last five years — The Ant Project was effective because it was so deeply collaborative. Right now, our default is to be collaborative on a lot of these efforts. We didn’t dream up the subscription stuff. We worked with a lot of publishers along the way to formulate that, and so that’s better. We have, I think, really good relationships even with the publishers who, in the public space, may say things that are a little bit less kind.
Richard: We’ll continue to work at that. I mean, look, I understand that. As I often point out, look, yes, we’re big, we have a lot of influence in the ecosystem and obviously, people should hold us to account and criticize us if they feel we deserve criticism, and it’s up to us to defend ourselves. Some of the criticism is fair, some of the criticism is unfair. Some of the criticism, I think, is also an unfortunate distraction from the primary effort which should be, how do we actually figure out how to build news products that are successful in this space? It has been no small disappointment to me that here we are, 25 years into the web, and this didn’t happen overnight.
This has been a pretty steady progression for over two decades and honestly, there has not been, on average, enough innovation. There’s been a lot and there are certainly many companies who are out there doing superb work, but the focus really has to be, how do I succeed in this new marketplace, not how we try to craft what might be unwise public policy to constrain or control an industry. The fact is, this is a very, very more competitive space for major publishers than it was 40 years ago when they were dominant and controlled the environment. People often say — Another phrase that gets my dander up is when they call Google ‘a gatekeeper’.
Let’s think about that for a second. Obviously, yes, we made judgments every day in our search algorithms, but let’s think about this world versus 40 years ago, and again, that’s when I grew up. If I wanted to have a voice in 1980, how did I do that? I either had to get the permission of a media entity or I had to to get some investors behind me to mount a magazine or a news publication if I even wanted to do a newsletter. That cost me a significant amount of money to do that. That, to me, is gatekeeping. We don’t live in an environment with a lot of gates today.
Will we continue to evolve our algorithms to do better things? We should. They’re imperfect, they likely always will be. This is a very open environment and I think we need to, as I said, when we have these debates about the nature of the ecosystem, the only thing I would encourage, as I mentioned when we talk about fake news, is when folks say, “Oh, Google should fix fake news”. I say, “Really? You want us to be arbiters of truth?” Take whatever plan you think you might have for how Google or anyone else should address fake news and run through all the possible scenarios about how that could go awry.
I saw a note on my Facebook feed from a reporter from the New York Times who I will not name who said, “You know what we really need, is we need some third-party organization to define who is a legitimate news organization and who is not”.
Richard: I went, “What the fuck?” Who’s going to decide that? By the way, who’s going to decide who decides? Think of the political climate we’re in. I’m sure our administration in Washington would absolutely love to define what a legitimate news organization is.
Anita: Thank you.
Audience Member 5: Hi Richard, thank you so much for your time. I realize there’s a lot of journalists here. I’m actually working in public relations so I’m on the different side of it. There’s been a lot of discussion about-
Richard: -a sense of being born Democratic and she meant to engage with your communities, not in doing your coverage, but to engage with your communities in connecting with them in terms of understanding their needs and interest in the society — Focus on the needs and interest of our communities. Is that advocacy? It is, and you’re advocating for the needs of your community, but it’s not necessarily biased.