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May 29, 2019, 11:59 a.m.
Business Models

After four years of handing out money for European news projects, Google is expanding its funding to North America

Projects, which should be related to local news or revenue generation, can receive up to $300,000 in funding. As in Europe, the launch comes with talk of government regulation in the air.

Since Google launched its Digital News Initiative in Europe in 2015, it’s supported 662 European projects with payouts totaling more than €140 million. Now that effort is going global, and that means Google money will become available for North American news organizations: Google announced yesterday that it’s looking to fund digital news projects on this continent.

(Well, some of this continent: just the United States, U.S. overseas territories, and only the non-Quebec portion of Canada, for some reason.)

Projects will receive funding up to $300,000, with Google financing making up to 70 percent of the total project cost; applications are due July 15 at midnight PT. (It’s not just North America and Europe, by the way: Challenges for Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa will open to applications soon. It’s all overseen by Ludovic Blecher, a 2013 Nieman Fellow.) There’s no indication of how many projects will be funded or what the total outlay will be; in the fine print, Google also notes that it may go past $300,000 or 70 percent on “large projects that significantly benefit the broad news ecosystem.”

From Google’s announcement post:

The first North America GNI Innovation Challenge will focus on projects which generate revenue and/or increase audience engagement for local news.

In this context, local means an existing, journalistic organization whose primary focus is on a specific geographical target group.

All ideas are welcome, but we are requiring all projects to have a monetization component and to provide explicit plans for monetization with clear indicators showing the potential of the project to create economic value added for the business.

Also note these caveats: “Editorial expenses are not part of the eligible costs for the Google-funded portion of a project and will not be covered…Funding may not be spent on general and overhead costs.” The first cut of applicants will be done by a team of Google employees, who will then make recommendations to a final jury “composed of regional and global Google executives and up to two external experts.”

This challenge is part of the broader Google News Initiative, which launched in the U.S. last year. It committed “$300 million over three years toward various products and initiatives intended to help news publishers and sweeten Google’s relationships with them” — think subscription tools, fake news fighting campaigns, and so on — but at the time of launch it wasn’t handing out grants to North American publishers. Now it is.

Google’s initial move into news funding in 2015 came as it faced significant opposition from both European publishers and European governments. (The debut of the Google News Initiative came just two weeks after the EU formally accused Google of abusing its market power.) Its move to North America comes as U.S. politicians (including some traditionally regulation-skeptical ones) talk about breaking up tech companies, including Google. (The Canadians aren’t too happy with Silicon Valley right now either.) Facebook, which has faced a larger share of recent approbrium than Google has, is also doling out money to local news publishers, and earlier this month it opened a call “to support and connect people and organizations that are building community through local news,” offering grants between $5,000 and $25,000.

There are a few ways to think about programs like this. On one hand: Free money! And the challenge is open to “digital natives, startups, NGOs, industry organizations, broadcasters, traditional news organizations, freelancers, and sole proprietors” — that’s a wide pool of possible recipients (although at least in Europe, most of the funding has gone to Western European, for-profit, legacy media organizations).

On the other hand, Google and Facebook aren’t exactly friends to local news. Those two companies alone accounted for 60 percent of the digital ad market in 2018, as print advertising continued to fall and even big digital native media outlets like BuzzFeed and Vox suffered. Debate continues about whether news organizations that have been so damaged by the existence of the tech giants should also accept money from them. So far, the most organized opposition has come from Europe — where Schibsted Media Group, for instance, won’t be taking any money that the platforms are doling out.

(“We decided, on a corporate level, that we should not take project money from Google and Facebook, whatever it is they’re handing out money for, whether it’s for interns or specific journalism projects. That’s a decision made from the top,” Karin Pettersson, Schibsted’s VP of public policy and a 2016 Nieman Fellow, told Nieman Lab last year.)

Four large German publishers also teamed up this week in an effort to pull advertising dollars back from the platforms. This type of response has been less common in the United States, where publishers have generally chosen to work with the platforms even as they decry their power.

And on occasion, suspect projects have made their way through Google’s grant application process. Earlier this year, for instance, Google offered funding to a mouthpiece of Hungary’s authoritarian government. That offer was rescinded, but it could be a harbinger of sticky situations in the U.S., though the narrower focus on local news might smoothen the process.

On the…third hand: If they’re gonna destroy you, maybe you should grab some of their money on your way out? If that sounds good to you, you can apply here.

Photo from here.

POSTED     May 29, 2019, 11:59 a.m.
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