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Oct. 25, 2019, noon
Aggregation & Discovery
LINK: blog.google  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   October 25, 2019

On the same day that Facebook’s tab will start paying (some) publishers for their content, Google has announced its grantees in the local news-focused Google News Initiative North American Innovation Challenge. Thirty-four projects and newsrooms will receive funding from the largest digital advertising revenue earner as part of this challenge, out of a total of $5.8 million this round.

While the Google News Initiative is a rebrand and reimagination of the Google Digital News Innovation Fund x Google News Lab (of which I was a recipient of funding to work here at Nieman Lab two years ago), this is the first time that the initiative is putting significant money directly into North American publishers’ projects — as presidential candidates and lawmakers are eyeing more regulation for the tech giant.

Correlation does not equal causation and all that, but BuzzFeed News analyzed Google’s generosity toward publishers on various continents over the past few years, especially as Europe regulators have taken a harder look at the company. (BuzzFeed News’ reporting was based on a findings from the Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project, which is funded by a Google competitor, among others.) For example: Google’s European publishing spending ballooned after 2015, as the European Union considered taxing Google for displaying copyright content, compared to a modest incline in North America then. Over the next year and a half or so, GNI is doling out $30 million via the innovation challenges with various focuses in each region of the world. (Here are the Asia-Pacific recipients from the first round last year, 23 recipients in 14 countries.)

For this round, 34 projects from 17 states and provinces out of 269 total applicants were selected based on “impact, feasibility, innovation, and inspiration. We were looking for applicants focused on generating revenue and/or increasing audience engagement for local news.” While this batch does deliver revenue-driven ideas for local news, it’s also largely supporting legacy media outlets, from the Salt Lake Tribune (simultaneously working on transitioning to nonprofit status) to GateHouse Media (which is busy with a Gannett merger). Another analysis of Google’s journalism spending found that 70 percent of its European money went to commercial media.

Anyhoo — with those grains of salt, here are the selected projects for local news innovation in the U.S. and Canada. Grants ranged from $32,250 to $300,000.

Legacy print media

  1. The Dallas Morning News will receive funding for “a comprehensive, searchable guide to pre-K through 12 education in North Texas. Education choices are not as limited as they seem, whether within traditional public schools or beyond. This will help parents of all income levels understand what choices they have and empower them to choose what is best for their children.”
  2. The Salt Lake Tribune will receiving funding in support of The Utah Journalism Foundation (its new endowment alongside its attempted nonprofit status) and to “accelerate our transition by building out a critical and innovative series of tools, policies and procedures. The goal of this project is to create a sustainable business model that can be adapted by other local legacy news organizations in small to mid sized markers.”
  3. MaineToday Media, the privately-owned publisher of the Portland Press-Herald and other papers in the state, wants to “create a customer data management solution will combine the open source technologies WordPress and the Apache Unomi CDP. Integrating CDP technology with the WordPress publishing platform will enable scalable, cost-effective solutions for customer data management for publishers. The integrated WordPress features and hooks to the CDP will be used to create valuable experiences for readers and new ways for publishers to reach specific audiences.”
  4. GateHouse Media has two projects based in New York: “The GeoReporter project will develop a system to help editors easily source contributors of community content, make assignments and electronically pay those contributors in a streamlined digital experience, helping to cover more events in the local community.” and…
  5. The second GateHouse project, focused on audio collection, distribution, and monetization: “Our toolkit includes a reporter-friendly interface that demystifies when, where and how to collect audio. It allows for quick uploading to a CMS, where the audio is tagged and conditioned to maximize discoverability and make embedding easy.”
  6. Canadian Press Enterprises in Ontario will develop a digital data desk to improve “access to data and the use of AI to create content from that data…. A key focus of our data gathering will be public data sets from all levels of government as well as national-level NGOs, research institutes and academia. Using both human and algorithmic analysis, we will find patterns in those data sets, determine what news stories can be told about them, and generate content as a result.”
  7. The Arizona Daily Star will “test, launch and manage a local membership program for #ThisIsTucson, proving that a membership revenue model, more often seen in the non-profit news world, is viable in a midsize news market at a legacy newspaper.”
  8. The E.W. Scripps Company, Triton Digital, and Stitcher have banded together in Ohio to “simplify the development of podcast advertising creative assets to accelerate revenue growth in podcasting. We’ll do this by building a platform for purchasing podcast ad impressions and utilizing Google’s natural language processing & AI to automate the production of advertising creative for podcasts. Local, regional, and national businesses and their agencies will be able to easily create podcast specific creative and place targeted ad buys to local podcast audiences.”
  9. Lee Enterprises will create a Voice Brief Tool to “streamline the creation of a human curated and read news brief for use on audio assistants and streaming platforms.”
  10. Wick Communications, a family-owned longtime newspaper group, “will establish a responsible, curated neighborhood social media platform for communities served by Wick newspapers that encourages geographic connections through healthy discourse, cultivating relevant story ideas, and periodically bringing members together in real life (IRL) for events and discussions.”
  11. The Bay Area News Group and Southern California News Group, part of Digital First/MediaNews Group, teamed up for “developing a premium user experience for our most engaged, loyal subscribers that includes an ad-free news website, location-specific content recommendations, improved commenting and engagement tools and exclusive access to live events with our journalists.”
  12. Separately, the Southern California News Group “will build a predictive analytics tool to help editors determine which of hundreds of staff-written stories are best suited for homepage positions on local news sites. Essentially, it will help us focus our homepage presentation based on the reading habits of our homepage users.”
  13. Ontario-based Torstar, the company behind the Toronto Star newspaper, “is looking to develop a sustainable new platform to maximize reader engagement through combining Torstar’s powerful news brands with deep community content…. Project Local Pulse will be driven by local people, feature local content and help local businesses reach relevant audiences.”
  14. La Noticia in North Carolina will allow readers to post their own family celebrations for a fee via a “pay-for-service model celebrations portal for user-generated content. This portal will allow Latino families to share with the broader community, beautiful pictures and descriptions of family life celebrations such as: births, baptism, weddings, quinceañeras and community celebrations.”

Digital media/startups

  1. Detour Media in Michigan will “create a sustainable funding model for community-focused journalism outlets to amplify the needs and stories of historically underserved populations. Detour Detroit will test and quantify the success of hybrid journalist/engager roles to amplify readership, strengthen relationships with readers and grow revenue. We will track how stories, journalists and their engagement work in the community directly impact membership growth and retention. This creates a virtuous cycle of engagement and is a replicable model to reward attentive and responsive reporting. Google’s grant will fund the tech stack and tools to support this program.”
  2. VTDigger.org, Vermont’s main nonprofit news site, will “build an open source toolkit for conversion and audience tracking that allows news organizations to quickly build an email subscriber base and an effective year-round membership program.”
  3. With the creation of BackerTap, MuckRock will give “news organizations’ most passionate readers the inside story by letting them sign up for exclusive documents, analysis, and other bonus materials that go beyond the headlines. It will also harness the enthusiasm for journalism that makes a difference, making it a more rewarding experience to donate, subscribe, or help share the stories that matter knowing that support is going directly towards original reporting.”
  4. Regular Nieman Lab readers may recognize a familiar name here: Ken Doctor, our longtime Newsonomics analyst, will lead Lookout Local focusing on group sales for memberships. He explains his approach in a companion piece here.
  5. Earbank in Ontario “is developing a platform that makes it easier for broadcasters and journalists to archive their news audio clips and soundbites, make the content searchable on the Internet, and earn money by selling licenses for these clips to audio buyers such as documentary producers, podcasters, and educational publishers.”
  6. Village Media, the Ontario-based company working with the Google-funded/McClatchy-owned local news experiment “will create a platform for social interaction between community members within our local news environment. The presence of local businesses within that environment ensures that any growth in user activity will directly impact the local economic base.”
  7. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and its news org, Wisconsin Watch, are working with Outlier Media and Marquette University’s Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service “to engage residents of underserved Milwaukee neighborhoods in interactive public service journalism. It will equip residents with information they need to advocate for a better quality of life from their government and elected officials, and to better navigate the existing system. The information — both “news you can use” and in-depth pieces exploring the causes of problems plaguing these neighborhoods — will be texted directly to residents’ cell phones for free. Subscribers to the texting service will become crucial sources of news tips and on-the-ground information.”
  8. The Beacon, a forthcoming Kansas nonprofit newsroom, “will focus on the necessary steps to define and engage our unique audience for long-term sustainability, identify and build relationships with other civic engagement players, and create a forum for discussion of news and engagement with our audience.”

Universities

  1. Northwestern University will use its funding for the Medill Spiegel Research Center’s Subscriber Engagement Index, “a new tool that would give local news organizations timely, unique, actionable insights about the online behaviors of their digital subscribers. The Index would show participating news organizations what digital subscribers are consuming on local news sites, and what’s leading some to churn. This anonymized data would be shared and benchmarked in a wide array of categories so news outlets can measure their performance against their peers.”
  2. Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism will build out an “Interactive Story Wall… [for local broadcasters] to visualize and explain data-driven stories on broadcast and digital platforms using a touch-screen that helps audiences better understand complex issues.”
  3. Crosstown, a data journalism project at the University of Southern California, “will create a specialized news product — such as a newsletter — targeted to each neighborhood in Los Angeles.”

Local TV stations

  1. ABC Owned TV stations “aim to expand data journalism from a primarily project-based and text-based activity to a mainstream, daily core of our newsrooms. To do so, we will pilot a systematic and holistic orientation around public data starting with the state of California.”
  2. Graham Media Group, in partnership with Frank Mungeam at the Cronkite School, will focus on “‘Freemium-to-paid’ membership programs for our local TV stations to diversify revenue and deepen audience engagement. Membership programs will move to the center of television’s strategy and become the driving force to build revenue and grow audiences everywhere.”
  3. ITVS (the Independent Television Service) “will help local public media stations use a new feedback platform to better serve, engage, and gain support from communities of color. Starting with five stations that are collaborating with ITVS on local content and civic participation strategies centered on criminal justice issues. ITVS will test and develop a model with the potential for national scale, serving public media’s diversity mission and local stations’ need to expand their revenue bases through increased membership.”

Public media

  1. WBUR “will embark on a project aimed at enabling public radio listeners to interact and transact with live local news content, using their voice, while driving their car. By partnering with emerging tech mobile developers, WBUR’s BizLab – an innovation lab developing and testing new models of support for public radio – will extend the listening experience of its existing WBUR Listen app to enable donations, transactions, and paid sponsorship within the context of listening to the station’s live broadcast.”
  2. WFAE in North Carolina introduces Community News Connect, “a collaborative local news platform that allows residents to partner with newsrooms to strengthen news coverage and amplify diverse voices. Community members would request coverage. Participating newsrooms would accept those requests, choosing to report on them individually or collaborate with other newsrooms. If newsrooms have interest in a topic but not the capacity to cover it, they could request micro-funding assistance from residents or community organizations.”
  3. Taking a page out of City Bureau’s documenting habits, Michigan Radio is building a public meeting tracker: “We’ll pull audio from meetings and make it available on podcast feeds and smart speakers, and we’ll use speech-to-text transcription to create a new database of meeting transcripts that newsrooms can use to track issues across communities.”

Other

  1. Okayplayer in New York: “For two decades, we’ve been a publication serving the needs and interests of that community. Okayplayer’s Investigative Reporting Platform is the next step in that tradition, a new way of funding quality reporting in places underserved by traditional media. Our model will empower local communities to direct their limited resources at journalism designed to shine light on opaque issues and bring accountability to local institutions.”
  2. The Local Media Association’s Accelerate Local program “will design and build a technology platform, with related services, that effectively matches the right journalism-funding entity with the right news organization and project, and ensure successful program execution. Accelerate Local will become the premier source and enabler of journalism funding in North America, and possibly the world in the longer term.”
  3. The Lenfest Institute’s Local Lab and the Philadelphia Inquirer “will create partially-automated newsletters serving targeted Philadelphia-area neighborhoods. The newsletters will include a mix of editorial content, public data, and other automated information that will empower residents to stay informed and connect with their neighbors.”
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