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A reckoning for tech’s work with news

“Major global efforts by tech companies to collaborate with the news industry will have matured to a point at which their effectiveness should be broadly judged.”

It’s hard to overstate just how much attention the news industry is getting inside of tech companies these days. Having worked at YouTube and Google for the past decade, I can tell you I’ve never seen our company pay more attention — or make more investments — in helping tackle the challenges that journalism faces. And we’re not alone — Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and others have all increased their investments in news products, features, and industry-focused initiatives.

In 2019, we’re going to see how impactful these efforts are likely to be in creating a brighter future for news. It will be an important year of reckoning, for a few reasons.

First, the public conversation on this topic is reaching a fever pitch. Issues that were once just discussed at news industry conferences by experts are now being discussed at dinner tables by families and friends. And regulatory conversations, highlighted by the EU copyright directive in Europe but spanning governments around the globe, are challenging the framework of how tech platforms host or link to news content. If and how people and governments shift their thinking on how digital news content should be discovered and distributed will in turn affect the momentum and appetite that tech companies have for the news space — and ultimately what news users will be able to access via tech platforms.

Second, major global efforts by tech companies to collaborate with the news industry will have matured to a point at which their effectiveness should be broadly judged. The Google News Initiative, the effort I help lead at Google to enable journalism to thrive in the digital age, will reach its second year. Our stated goals — to improve quality journalism, evolve business models for news, and expand technology to help newsrooms — should be evaluated based on whether we’re moving the needle for news organizations or not. We strive hard to ensure these efforts span a variety of products, partnerships, and programs created in collaboration with the industry — but whether these feel like substantive advancements or window dressing is something that industry leaders will be able to rightly evaluate by the end of 2019.

Third, global events are conspiring to make 2019 a big year for news and technology — particularly around elections, which always highlight the biggest issues in journalism. Next year, the 2020 U.S. presidential election will be off to the races; there could be a U.K. election; and Asia — where so many challenges are coming to a head around media trust and misinformation — will hold several national elections in 2019 including in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Tech companies and news orgs have been experimenting on collaborations (like those led by First Draft) to fight election disinformation in several markets around the world, and in 2019 these models will kick into a new gear in several countries.

So if 2019 is to be a year of reckoning for tech and news, how will we be judged?

Of course, that depends on the expectations you have for the role and responsibility of tech companies in journalism. Tech platforms, like newsrooms, don’t have a secret stash of silver bullets to solve the challenges that face the information ecosystem. What we do have is a desire — greater than ever before — to collaborate with thoughtful news organizations and innovators on better models and new solutions to help quality journalism thrive.

If our efforts succeed, we’ll be part of the solution. Key to that success will be resisting the temptation to make these conversations around tech and news an “us vs. them” narrative, but rather to create a space in the public dialogue for collaborative new solutions put forth by deeply invested parties. I’m optimistic that in 2019 that will be possible, and look forward to working hard to make it happen.

Steve Grove is director of the Google News Lab.

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