How much are good headlines worth? Google just set the price at $1 billion.
“Google agrees to pay news publishers more than $1 billion” CNN’s headline announced.
“Google pledges $1 billion in licensing payments to news publishers,” the Wall Street Journal declared.
“Google says it will pay publishers $1 billion for news in next three years,” CNBC wrote.
Even local bastions of the free press picked up wire stories about Google’s plan.
Thanks Google. Seriously, thank you. A billion dollars flowing to struggling news organizations is great. As someone who has used a Google Pixel phone for years and is deeply embedded in the company’s digital ecosystem, I appreciate the gesture.
But no one should pretend that this is altruistic or sufficient for the harm Google has caused to the news industry. Not by a long shot.
Google will pay $1 billion to license content from publishers for its News Showcase platform. Publishers will decide which stories to highlight within the company’s templates and can include timelines, links and related stories. They’ll even be allowed to link to their own sites. How nice.
That’s how business usually works. Publishers will produce curated news, and Google will pay for it.
Except this isn’t really a healthy business relationship. It’s an abusive relationship. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Here, I got you something nice.”
This is how a corporate behemoth buys itself some good PR, the kind that isn’t usually for sale.
With $1 billion, Google could have bought a 30-second advertising spot during every NFL game for years. People see through that sort of self-promotion. Fawning headlines splashed across websites and newspapers worldwide are more convincing. The news media still has a level of credibility that carries weight with the public and policy makers. They wouldn’t print it if it weren’t true.
So far about 200 publishers in select countries around the world have signed on. None are in North America, though, and the company is coy about when American publishers might get a taste.
Publishers in Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are the winners. Certainly not coincidentally, each of these nations is looking into antitrust action against Google. Watch for Google’s generosity to switch to the United States if the federal government ever gets serious about its own investigations and regulations.
Google and other tech giants have helped drive the local free press to near extinction. As they gobbled up digital advertising and republished news, they drained resources from newspapers. Press layoffs, ill-fated consolidation and closures followed.
Many advocates for preserving the local free press have suggested Congress require the big tech companies to give some of that money back to the publishers whose content helps attract eyeballs. Tax the ad revenue and use it to fund local journalism.
Google hopes to nip that kind of talk with its $1 billion. If the government sets the terms, those terms might not be as favorable or cheap. They also don’t come with nice headlines.
One billion dollars is Google’s standard donation to make a nuisance go away. That’s how much money the company pledged to ease a housing affordability crisis in Silicon Valley that it helped cause. It’s also how much it paid France to settle a fiscal fraud probe.
When nonprofits complained that they couldn’t afford Google, the company gave them $1 billion worth of cloud services. When the company decided to expand in New York City, it promised to spend $1 billion.
In his announcement of the $1 billion for news publishers, CEO Sundar Pichai gushed about how much he’s always loved newspapers. “One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is waiting for my father and grandfather to finish the paper over breakfast every morning so that I could get the latest headlines, especially in the sports section,” he said.
Cliché? Sure. But maybe Pichai really does want to the local news media to thrive. “I have always valued quality journalism and believed that a vibrant news industry is critical to a functioning democratic society,” he said.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, but not a free pass. $1 billion is a generous start, but it doesn’t remove the need for greater regulation and rethinking how big tech can and must do its part to help local free press survive.