Power and pin money: Time for a new deal between big tech and the media

There’s a clear irony in engaging in a lively debate about the impact of big tech companies on journalism as part of a festival largely financed by Google and Facebook. The recent International Journalism Festival in Perugia offered more than one example of this. Welcome to the new media universe, in which powerful platform companies call the shots and news organisations struggle to keep up.

Big tech and the mainstream media currently appear to be locked in a love-hate relationship – one in which hypocrisy plays a large part. The same people who often criticise the Silicon Valley giants in public are more than happy to take their money when it is offered. The time has come for a more pragmatic approach.

Tech companies influence the media in several ways. Most importantly, their algorithms dictate the kind of content that readers see. If Facebooks decides to go slower on news – as it did in 2018 – users see less of it in their feeds. The way in which Google ranks search results has a direct impact on the exposure that media brands get.

Secondly, platform companies influence the kind of innovation projects and storytelling formats that newsrooms feel able to take on board. New tech projects almost invariably receive the label “innovation”, whether or not they are genuinely innovative. “The expensive job of innovation in newsrooms increasingly means asking ‘What would Google want?’ – influencing what newsrooms choose to develop, from virtual reality, to voice skills, to photo libraries”, the Tow Center’s Emily Bell writes. The consequence is that other areas in which innovation is desperately needed – management styles, processes, talent acquisition and retention – tend to be neglected.

Thirdly, big tech companies engage in direct funding. They support projects, research, training and the like. The collaborative research project “The Publishers’ Patron”, carried out by NetzpolitikRepublik and Falter and led by Alexander Fanta, shows the contribution made by Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI) to journalism innovation.

No more “church and state” separation

What should we make of all this? Of course, newsrooms have never been totally independent of the media ecosystem in which they operate. Media outlets have always had to contend with powerful owners, advertising clients and political interests lurking in the background. And let there be no mistake: even crowdfunding is not without its pitfalls if the funders feel let down, as the heated debate around The Correspondent’s unexpected withdrawal from the US has demonstrated.

The situation has evolved in recent years. There used to be a clear division between the editorial and the business sides – similar to the concept of the separation of church and state – which wasn’t perfect but was at least an attempt to shield newsrooms from external pressures. This has now gone for good, as it no longer makes sense in a digital environment in which product development, marketing and editorial have to work hand in hand. And on top of that, platforms have a much greater influence on the daily business of producing news than anything ever seen before.

It’s an inescapable fact that journalism needs all the help it can get, and most media outlets are in no position to reject (well-intended) support. The Washington Post under its owner, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is a good example of how a news organisation can flourish given certain conditions – the main ones being stable, transparent investment and editorial independence.

Here are some thoughts on what the two sides of the equation need to bear in mind before deciding to accept or offer funding, whether this is for a newsroom, a research institution, training and knowledge exchange or for tools to facilitate editorial work:

Tips for recipients

  • Make sure your funding comes from a range of reliable sources. Diversity of income sources used to be the rule in the days of advertising, and it should still apply. Your business should not be entirely dependent on one source of income.
  • Consider what the money will be used for. Is it a small-scale experiment or a narrowly defined project, or does it have an impact on your core business? This makes a difference to the precautions you need to take. Don’t use the money for research that is directly related to the donor. For example, it’s not a good idea to use Google money to research the influence of Google. (It must be tricky for Washington Post reporters to carry out investigations into Amazon, even if they claim there is nothing to stop them doing this.)
  • Only take money for projects that make sense in the context of your strategy. Every news organisation is different: audiences, business environments, missions and needs vary. Instead of jumping onto a bandwagon and allowing yourself to be seduced by “bright shiny things”, think carefully about the funding offer. Does it fit your particular needs? Does it allow you to make further progress along your chosen path? Or is it just something fun to do? There’s nothing wrong with fun, but if the funding runs out you might find yourself saddled with a set of experts you no longer need, and that you neglected other more relevant areas in the meantime.
  • Make sure donors don’t interfere with your research and content. Think about the terms of engagement beforehand. Read the small print. Establish independent oversight bodies where necessary. This is particularly important for academic institutions.
  • Think about the impact on your reputation. It’s better to have a communication strategy already in place before making any grand announcements. TU Munich, one of Germany’s most prestigious universities, recently had a hard time fending off criticism after it accepted a sizeable Facebook grant for research into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
  • If you can, do without it. Independence is wonderful and essential to enable journalism to fulfil its role in a democratic society. Though there’s no such thing as complete independence, it’s best to avoid entering into a role that entails additional dependency.

Tips for donors

  • Ideally, don’t tie your funding to content. Respect the need for independent journalism and research as a public good and don’t do anything that risks compromising this.
  • Don’t make funding contingent on political goals – and if you do, be transparent about it. People will always suspect a hidden political agenda and you will soon come unstuck if you pay lip-service to neutrality and non-interference but fail to respect these principles in practice.
  • Don’t ever threaten to withdraw funding. Be aware that you are engaging in a highly asymmetrical relationship, so treat your partners with respect. Take care not to increase their level of dependency.
  • Listen to recipients. Find out what they really need. Don’t tell them what they should need or talk them into projects they don’t have the capacity to run.
  • Subject potential recipients to proper scrutiny. It’s embarrassing if you have to withdraw funding because you haven’t done your homework, for example by failing to check out a recipient’s political allegiances – as happened when Google announced it had decided to award a grant to a Hungarian news website, then pulled the grant after critics pointed out that the outlet had been guilty of spreading right-wing propaganda.
  • Predictability and transparency are key. Organisations need long-term commitments to be able to plan ahead and help their employees feel secure. They need to know where they are at.
  • Don’t let your support look like pin money if you really want to make a difference. (Unless all you want is to offer a bit of pin money…)
  • Pay your taxes. The American approach to giving puts the emphasis on the discretion of the individual donor. They decide what their money is used for. The European approach works through the tax system and involves redistribution via democratic processes, with representatives of society deciding on priorities. If you try to circumvent the democratic process, you will be seen as considering yourself to be above the law.

The platform companies often try to depict their engagement in the media industry as a way of “giving back”. This is a very transactional way of framing it. Journalism has a critical role to play in democracies. Ideally it makes sure that all interests are heard, holds power to account and gives citizens all the information they need. This is vital for stability in free societies. A better way of viewing big tech’s engagement in the media is as a “shared responsibility”, in which those who have more are happy to do more of the sharing.

Disclosure: The author used to be the Managing Editor of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which doesn’t accept Google funding. She now runs the Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. While the Institute benefits from sizeable grants made by platform companies (including Google), the Leadership Programmes are customer-funded and so compete with “free”, Google-funded educational programmes. She has also written a media column for NewsMavens, which is funded by the Google News Initiative.

This text was published by European Journalism Observatory on April 29, 2019