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Oct. 23, 2015, 11:23 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Why does Google want to pay for digital news experiments in Europe?

“What is really important for the projects we’re looking for is we want specific projects and not the broad digital agenda or roadmap of publishers.”

Lately Google is spending a lot of time — and money — trying to convince journalists it wants to be friends.

In recent months, they’ve introduced Accelerated Mobile Pages, the recently launched Google News Lab, and team-ups with companies like The New York Times on virtual reality projects using Google Cardboard. (Not to mention the Google Journalism Fellows, one of whom is hosted here at Nieman Lab each summer.)

Now Google is officially launching a €150 million ($166 million) fund to invest in online journalism experiments from publishers across Europe. The fund is part of Google’s broader Digital News Initiative, launched in the spring as part of the company’s campaign to make friends out of enemies in Europe.

The fund will invest in projects for the next three years, covering three rounds of applications starting this fall. The deadline for companies looking to apply for the first round is December 4. The project is only open to European publishers, and according to Google, 120 companies have already signed up. Notably, Google does not plan to take any ownership stake in the projects it funds.

Google is funding media experiments at different levels as part of the program. According to the company’s blog post:

Prototype projects: open to organisations — and to individuals — that meet the eligibility criteria, and require up to €50k of funding. These projects should be very early stage, with ideas yet to be designed and assumptions yet to be tested. We will fast-track such projects and will fund 100% of the total cost.

Medium projects: open to organisations that meet the eligibility criteria and require up to €300k of funding. We will accept funding requests up to 70% of the total cost of the project.

Large projects: open to organisations that meet the eligibility criteria and require more than €300k of funding. We will accept funding requests up to 70% of the total cost of the project. Funding is capped at €1 million.

Google’s newfound diplomacy and philanthropy comes after years of battling with European publishers about the company’s influence over advertising, search, and visibility in Google News. In 2013, the company created a precursor to the Digital News Initiative with a €60 million fund to help spur innovation in French media companies.

The former head of that program, Ludovic Blecher, a former editor-in-chief of Liberation.fr and a Nieman Fellow in our class of 2013, now oversees the innovation fund at the Digital News Initiative.

“What is really important for the projects we’re looking for is we want specific projects and not the broad digital agenda or roadmap of publishers,” he told me.

The fund is designed to help publishers, ranging from newspapers or other legacy media to startups, build out projects they can’t complete on their own. That’s a fairly broad area media companies could fill with ideas, which is why Blecher says they want ideas that have a specific business plan, performance indicators, or other goals and benchmarks that can be measured. “It’s about the creation of new revenue streams and addressing the creation of original journalism,” he said.

A group comprised of Google employees and news executives from around Europe, include companies like Spiegel Online and Telegraph Media Group, is overseeing the application process for the fund. A small team will process applications and make selections of prototype and medium-sized projects. The larger body will make the final decision on who receives funding.

Ideally, the Digital News Initiative would jumpstart dozens of skunkworks projects in media companies around the European Union. Blecher said they want to encourage publishers to take risks on the type of storytelling or revenue-generating projects that have been developed by their counterparts in the U.S.

One lesson from his time leading Google’s media innovation fund in France was the need for specificity in the projects from media companies. The best way to effect change at an individual company, and create a chance for another company to duplicate that, is to focus on a project, not a broader goal or hiring for specific positions, he said.

But the other lesson, Blecher said, was that publishers would rather have Google working alongside them rather than at cross purposes. Given that the relationship previously included threats, lawsuits, and acrimony, collaboration could be a marked improvement.

“It’s not just a fund,” Blecher said. “It’s about having discussions with publishers.”

POSTED     Oct. 23, 2015, 11:23 a.m.
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