What makes Google dominate

Citizen Google: How a corporation dominates journalism

Werewolf is a party game. The game master secretly designates one of the players as the villain. The other participants then have to work together to guess who the bad guy is and throw him out of the game. If the werewolf survives to the end, he has won. Werewolf, also known as the Mafia, is the favorite game of Richard Gingras, Google's Head of News. Gingras likes to play with people who used to be Google's harshest critics: the top managers of the media industry.

Every year, Google hosts a summit for the industry called Newsgeist. Last year it took place in Copenhagen, this June in Lisbon. The cream of European journalism gets to know each other at the exclusive meeting. The carefully selected guest list includes, for example, Spiegel Online editor-in-chief Barbara Hans, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and many big names in the industry.

During the day, the guests at Newsgeist debate questions such as “What could Google do for news?”. In the evening, whiskey and werewolf are on the program. Gingras is happy to be the game master. You can't throw him out of the game and he stays in control. A role that Google likes to play in journalism.

Operating system for journalism

For some years now, Google has been digging deeper into an area that is indispensable for the functioning of democracy. The data company is changing journalism. If you are looking for news, you can do so with Google's search and Google News. If you want to see the last slip of the US President, you can find it on Youtube. News sites use Google Analytics to count visitors and store their content on Google servers via mobile phone-optimized AMP pages. If you want to pay for media, you can now do so with Subscribe with Google. More and more media are also outsourcing their advertising business to Google AdSense.

In short: Google is building an ecosystem with its products that hardly any media company can escape. A kind of operating system for journalism.

Since it was founded in 1998, Google has grown to become one of the most valuable companies in the world. The market value of the parent company Alphabet is over 800 billion US dollars, and like Apple and Amazon it could soon break the trillion dollar mark. Google's main source of income is online advertising. But the company also offers web services, biotechnology, cyber security and self-driving cars - there is little that Google cannot do.

The group also has a hobbyhorse: the free press.

Beyond its business interests, Google runs a $ 150 million funding program for innovation in journalism. The Digital News Initiative (DNI) started in 2015, at a time when Google was criticized as a journalism killer. Google, together with Facebook, are skimming a large part of the advertising revenue on the net and thereby destroying the business model of the press, it was said at the time. Today, Google is more respected among publishers than the other Internet platforms, while it continues to slap on Facebook.

Social assistance among capitalists

How did Google get so popular? The group ensnares the media industry. Google presents itself as a patron in Renaissance style who promotes the starving art of journalism. Never before has a private company distributed so much money to other private companies - with practically no consideration. The Digital News Initiative shows how much Google wants to make itself indispensable for journalism.

We have analyzed 447 projects that the DNI Fund has funded over the past three years. Our goal was to take a look at the internet company's strategy. Our data shows who Google is giving money to - and what kind of projects the company prefers to support.

The clearest finding: a large part of the Google funding goes to established, old media houses. In the first four funding rounds, 54 percent of the projects went to profit-oriented media and publishers - in Germany almost all of the major companies were involved, DuMont, Holtzbrinck, Funke and WAZ. If you extrapolate the sums from approximate information provided by Google, as much as 70 percent of the money goes to commercial media. More than half of the recipients are older than 20 years. 83 percent of them are based in Western Europe. The typical profile of a beneficiary of Google money is: old, western European, commercial.

Compared to other media, the DNI Fund is significantly less generous. Only ten percent of the DNI projects in our data set went to non-profit media and public broadcasters.

"A PR tool for Google"

Veit Dengler admits that Google flatters the troubled publishing industry with its gifts of money. The Austrian was CEO of the NZZ Group until last year and is now a member of the Bauer Medien management team. Dengler is chairman of the Google DNI advisory board, which, as an expert committee for Google, distributes the funding. "The Digital News Initiative is also a PR tool for Google to make the European publishing industry friendly," said Dengler at a meeting in Hamburg at the end of August.

Industry representatives and scientists sit on the advisory board, three of the ten seats are held by Google itself. Some of the applicants are familiar faces to the advisory board - a side effect of a publishing world that is becoming ever more closely networked thanks to Google-financed congresses.

Sometimes the needs of old and established publishing houses are explicitly addressed when awarding projects. “The decisions about projects take into account how innovative the projects are for their market and also how much they are within of the company in question are new and innovative, ”says Dengler.

Many media involved do not want to make public how much money they receive from Google when asked. We were able to find out the exact funding amount for only 217 of 447 projects we analyzed.

Also, not all of the Google money goes to the news media. A quarter of the funding commitments go to organizations that do not work as a journalist. Most of them are start-ups that develop services for the industry. For example, the Google fund pays 50,000 euros in start-up aid and a further 300,000 euros to Trint, a company that builds software for the automatic transcription of speech to text. This may be helpful for the individual journalist, but it is neither journalistic work nor does it contribute to the financing of the industry.

Bullshit bingo with blockchain

The data shows what the term “innovation” means according to the interpretation of the Google initiative. Four out of ten projects deal with automation and data journalism. DNI sponsored the British news agency PA and a start-up with 706,000 euros for a project to automatically generate local stories from official statistics.

The publishing industry, which has slept through the Internet and new narrative forms for many years, also uses DNI to promote the development of new image and video formats. One fifth of the projects are aimed at new forms of presentation of content, such as virtual reality formats.

The project descriptions are teeming with industry buzzwords. Eight percent of the projects are dedicated to fact checks and credibility, twelve percent provide solutions for community work and crowdsourcing. Of course, the terms blockchain, fake news and hate speech can also be found in the data set. Some project texts on the DNI website read as if the authors had played bullshit bingo at journalists' congresses.

There is one caveat: Google does not promote journalistic content per se. Projects at DNI are dedicated to technical innovation, not the production of texts, radio or video. The Digital News Initiative focuses on monetization. Five percent of the projects are aimed at online advertising and eleven percent at other sources of income such as paywalls. At first glance, the projects often seem like competition for Google products, but mostly complement the group's ecosystem.

Stage on for Google services

Anyone who reads longer about the funded projects will soon come across hidden benefits of the Digital News Initiative for Google: Several of the projects are based on Google services. A developer from Austria received money to develop VoiceAd, an app that uses text to automatically generate audio advertising for the Google AdWords network. Other projects use services such as Google Fusion Tables, speech recognition or Google Analytics. By spreading its services, Google strengthens its dominance in the industry.

For Google, the media industry is closely linked to its core business: collecting user data. According to figures from the market research company BuiltWith, 40 million active websites use Google Analytics for user tracking. News sites play a key role as their use of Google products produces immense amounts of data for the corporation.

This is also underlined by a study by computer scientists led by Professor Douglas C. Schmidt from the US University of Vanderbilt. The researchers compared the data streams from cell phones with the Google Android operating system with those from iPhones. They were able to show that users send a surprising amount of data to Google, even if they do not use any Google products or visit Google pages. “These data streams are purely driven by advertisers / publishers,” write the scientists. Google needs the media to be able to track even the last non-Android users on the net.

The AMP case

The case of Accelerated Mobile Pages shows that the DNI is closely linked to Google's business goals. AMP is a standard supported by Google for websites that load faster than normal pages on mobile phones. Even though AMP is open source software in and of itself, many media stores their AMP pages on Google servers. AMP is driving up the number of clicks on news sites, as figures from the service provider Chartbeat show. But some in the industry fear that the standard could increase Google's dominance.

So it's no wonder that DNI supports several AMP-supported projects. One example of this is the start-up pool, which is building an AMP-optimized paywall. Poool is thus competing with the new Subscribe with Google. Poool founder Maxime Moné takes it easy. His product covers a niche that a global company like Google could occupy at any time if it only wanted, said Moné in a telephone conversation in July. "If Google wants to take it, they will take it."

Recipients of DNI project money assure Google that “milestones” will be reached. You need to keep the fund informed of your progress. This gives Google insight into the product ideas of possible competitors for the price of a few thousand euros of funding. The terms of the contract state that Google reserves the right to develop similar ideas, but with its own resources that are far more powerful.

At the request of netzpolitik.org, Google's representative at European publishers, Madhav Chinnappa, emphasized that the DNI fund was not connected to the Google product world. It serves purely to promote innovation in the European news ecosystem. Google has never developed its own version of a project supported by the DNI Fund, according to quotes sent by email from Chinnappa's spokesman.

The group dresses its commitment to journalism in unctuous words. With the Digital News Initiative, Google is helping publishers and itself, said top manager Gingras. Google needs an open internet. "Yes, we do it because it's a good idea, but we also do it because, well, because of the nature of our business, our goals coincide with those of the publishers," Gingras said last in an interview. "We both need a living, open knowledge ecosystem to be truly effective."

Lobbying against ancillary copyright law

At the same time, Google uses its journalism initiative for tangible interest politics. Shortly before an important vote on EU copyright reform in June, Google manager Chinnappa warned publishers about the proposals. (The Financial Times reported on it in June; here the email in full text.) In the letter to several large publishers in the “DNI working group”, Chinnappa wrote that the plans for EU-wide ancillary copyright based on the German model were “bad for the news ecosystem "; the obligation to filter content is generally "bad for the Internet". The message ends with a request to contact the responsible MPs.

With the email, Google got involved in a political debate that affects its financial self-interest. The big publishers vehemently advocate ancillary copyright. If your patron Google, on the other hand, occurs, that puts the industry in a quandary.

From opponent to patron

How could the data company gain so much influence in the first place? The press publishers saw Google as an opponent for a long time. From the late noughties onwards, politics in Europe debated “Google taxes” and the introduction of a copyright tax even on short text excerpts in order to finance journalism. The latter approach failed again and again due to the opposition of the group: The ancillary copyright law introduced in Germany in 2013 was a triumph for Google instead of costing the Californians money. In Spain, which introduced a tax on links to publisher offers in 2014, Google News simply withdrew.

The publishing industry remained angry with the group for a long time. The Financial Times summarized the situation in 2015: "Google needs more friends in Europe."

Google learned its lesson from the criticism. The group landed its first major success with its monetary gifts in France. After the debates about the introduction of a “Google tax” on advertising revenue, Google promised the publishing industry a € 60 million fund for “digital innovation” in 2013 - Google thus created the model for the Digital News Initiative.

Congresses and Careers

Google money doesn't just go to DNI projects. Through its News Lab and its scholarships, the group supports the next generation as well as fellowships in the media, as the author of these lines himself has obtained. (More on this here.) According to a report, more than 20,000 journalists from all over Europe took part in Google News Lab workshops in 2017 alone. The group swears by a generation of journalism.

Google's cornucopia also pours over researchers and journalism NGOs. A prominent example: The Reuters Institute for Journalism Research in Oxford provides regular reports on reading behavior and preferences of media consumers. The institute received over £ 5 million from Google for its Digital News Report and related projects from August 2015 to 2018, according to a recent Freedom of Information request. Further funds have already been committed.

Google is also an important sponsor of the Journalism Festival in Perugia, one of the largest media congresses in Europe. Its founder Arianna Ciccone sits on the advisory board of DNI. Google is also funding a project by the European Journalism Center, which uses Google money to offer manuals and training courses for journalists. Upon request, all three institutions emphasize that they should never be influenced by Google in terms of content. But what does Google get out of it?

Google's soft power

There is no clear answer to what intentions Google is pursuing with its many millions of subsidies. But one thing is certain: Google is constantly expanding its business interests in the media sector.

His monetary donations bring the group soft power, the safeguarding of long-term power interests. Google is evolving from a data company to a central interface for the production and distribution of news. We will soon have to ask the question: does journalism still exist without Google? And what do we do if the answer is "no"?

Update from November 22, 2018: The information about an additional 300,000 euros DNI money to Trint was added later. A company spokesman pointed this out to us.


The research on Google's money and its influence on journalism and media in Europe is a project by Alexander Fanta and Ingo Dachwitz. Our thanks go to our interns Julian Pütz, Leo Thüer, Jannik Mertens and Wiebke Denkena for the data work as well as Oliver Hinzmann for the illustration and Luca Hammer for the interactive graphics. For six months we collected information about Google's (Digital) News Initiative and the associated innovation fund, set up and analyzed a database of the funded projects, and conducted interviews with experts, those in charge and recipients of funds. In the end, they are convinced: The news initiative produces exciting projects and yet it is a problem.

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About the author

Alexander Fanta

As the Brussels correspondent of netzpolitik.org, Alexander reports on the digital policy of the European Union. He writes about new laws and does investigative research on large technology companies and their lobbying. He is co-author of the study "Medienmäzen Google" on the group's journalism funding. In 2017 Alexander was a fellow at the Reuters Institute for Journalism Research at Oxford University, where he researched automation in journalism. Before that he was a foreign policy journalist for the Austrian news agency APA. E-mail:[email protected] (PGP). Twitter:@FantaAlexx. WhatsApp / Threema: +32483248596.
Published 09/26/2018 at 9:00 am