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Friday, 22 September 2017

With Richard Gingras, Google's head of news

This morning at Google’s Sydney headquarters about 80 journalists came to hear from the source, the man who is spearheading the search company’s engagement with the media industry.

Gingras said at the outset that Google is working to foster a healthier, open environment. “Why does Google do this?”

He said that his career has been about the evolution of media. He worked for PBS under Hartford Gunn, and said that he had always wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology. "Technology enables things," he said.

Gingras said that Google is a child of the open web, and that 98 percent of the company’s business derives from that. “That drives a lot of our strategies.” He said that the world has changed radically in the past 20 years. “We've swapped out the central nervous system of our culture," he said, and attributed part of the credit for this change to his company. "We have indeed given free expression to everyone." Google, he said, has enabled many, many more voices to appear in the public sphere.

But he thinks there is more work to do. “How do we rearchitect the web for speed?” he asked, and mentioned AMP for ads.

Gingras said that we are now operating in a media environment that is quite levelling, and this has had casualties. One of these casualties has been a quantity of trust. “We see continued declines in trust in media,” he said. He then mentioned The Trust Project. Gingras is working with Sally Lehrman, a senior scholar on journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara, in California, on ethics policies. There are 90 news organisations involved. The project is, for example, encouraging the visibility of ethics policies on news websites. Also, media organisations should ask themselves how their journalists are made to appear credible. Can readers access their full body of work? “People talk today about the need for media literacy,” said Gingras. “It comes down to expertise and motivation.” What is the journalist’s background and what is their agenda?

“I believe that journalists should be advocates and be unbiased,” he said, encapsulating an apparently contradictory pair of priorities in one sentence. This, for me, was the most important thing that Gingras said during the morning’s proceedings, and it was almost the last thing he said.

On monetisation, Gingras said that advertising is not necessarily enough anymore, so subscriptions come into play. “We're seeing good growth there,” he said. The New York Times has 2.25 million digital subscribers, he said. “What can [Google] do to help drive subscription growth?” He said that the company is looking at “the full funnel from discovery to payment”. They are going to evolve the sampling program. He said Google is also looking for propensity to pay among the readership, and studying how to take the friction out of the purchasing process. It is necessary to eliminate abandonment, he said. Media companies need to tell Google who is a subscriber so that they can be served better during the search process. He said that it might be possible to highlight for the reader whether an article that appears in a search result is from a media outlet they already subscribe to, so that they can then click on it. But he said he is cautious about setting expectations.

Part of the burden in future must lie with media organisations themselves. “You have to be offering a product that people can immediately see the value of,” Gingras said. “What's the value proposition?” He added however that the internet is challenging the very foundations of democracy. “How to find consensus between conflicting points of view?” The media has the job, he said, of building a bridge of commonly understood facts that people can use to come to their own conclusions in any debate.

Anita Jacoby from the Australian Communications and Media Authority asked Gingras some questions, and conducted the Q and A with the audience.

“What does journalism mean in the world?” Jacoby asked Gingras. “How do you form an independent perspective and give people what they need to know?”

“We're seeing far more partisanship than ever before,” replied Gingras. “Also, a greater degree of opinion content.” Trust is based in getting mundane things right, and in the old days newspapers had various ways to do that, such as the weather page, the sports page, and stock market information. Back in 1980, he went on, opinion was about 3 percent of a newspaper’s content, but now a media website may be 60 to 70 percent editorial. “Our role in search is to give people the information they need to make their own decisions.”

Gingras also talked about the modern phenomenon of fake news. “I don't think we're ever going to see the end of it,” he said. “Fake news on social networks is a different thing,” he said. But: “It's one thing to not rank content, it's another thing to eliminate it. This is legal content.”

“What is Google doing about journalists losing their jobs?” asked Jacoby. “Google did not kill the news industry,” Gingras said. The internet has allowed virtually free distribution. “The news industry is going through a very, very challenging transition.” Gingras notes that the golden era of news was disrupted by TV because when TV entered the market a lot of newspapers went under but the ones that survived, thrived. “How are people consuming news? It's never too soon to start innovating.”

One question that came from the audience was from the ABC. “Are paywalls dangerous for democracy if people cannot afford to pay?”

Gingras pointed back in time to journalist I.F. Stone, who ran a small subscription paper and who Gingras called "the original blogger". Even though his paper was only distributed to about 10,000 people, it had a large impact in the public sphere. Stone is famous for reporting on the Vietnam War. 

“How do I succeed in this new marketplace?” Gingras asked the audience rhetorically. “We don't live in a world with a lot of gates.” A New York Times journalist once suggested to him establishing who was a legitimate news source, and filtering out those results that were not from such sources. “What the fuck!” he whispered.


Gingras (left) and Jacoby at Google's Sydney HQ.

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