Media Moves

Is Google News Initiative a media takeover?

October 24, 2019

Posted by Mariam Ahmed

Politico Europe’s Playbook claims to be “the most reliable political newsletter in Brussels.” It is a morning must-read for journalists, policymakers, and political junkies. However, in 2015, the Playbook and its readers noticed a small change — the newsletter was now sponsored by Google.

Exactly at that moment, Google was under investigation by the European Commission for breaching antitrust laws. In 2015, the number of Google grants to European media suddenly spiked from 0 to more than 260.

Despite these efforts, Google is losing its European hold. The EU Commission fined the company in 2017 with a  €2.42 billion for abusing its dominance as a search engine, in 2018 with €4.34 billion for illegal practices regarding Android, and in 2019 with €1.49 billion for restrictive clauses in contracts with third-party websites.

Now, Google’s battlefield is the United States. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, including many others, is advocating for the breakup of Big Tech to reduce its market power.

The tech company has a direct influence on media through its “Google News Initiative,” whose declared purpose is “to work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age.” According to a new report released by the Google Transparency Project, a non-profit watchdog, Google has been using its grant program to realize “a media takeover.”

As a recent Stigler Center report noted, journalism is struggling to cope with the digital age. Six percent of US counties currently have no newspapers, and an additional 46 percent have only one newspaper, usually a weekly. Over one-half of counties are not served by a daily newspaper.

Google has simultaneously become journalists’ worst enemy and publishers’ best friend as Google has done more to fund and support journalism over the past decade than any other company.

Google is not simply helping local newspapers struggling with the sudden death of the classified advertisement business and the limited number of paying subscribers. The company’s finance efforts are also directed to influential think tanks and non-profit organizations that shape the narrative regarding the challenges the whole media sector is facing.

“Facebook, Apple, and Google do things that journalists should be investigating, not profiting from,” argues Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

However, Google says, “Stop asking Google for money.”

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