It makes for some head-snapping contrasts when people in the same industry call Google the devil while others say the giant internet platform is a savior of sorts.

Long viewed by newsrooms as a serial plagiarist that scrapes news websites for stories to serve up to Google Search users, Google is changing its profile in the news business. Beginning in March 2018, it embarked on a program of teaching newspapers how to attract the paid subscribers newspapers need as a partial substitute for lost ad revenues. Google, which reported 2018 revenue of $136.36 billion, says it will spend about a quarter of a percent of that on its “Google News Initiative,” through which it offers tools, training and other support to news outlets worldwide.

To the newspaper industry’s leading lobbyist, Google and Facebook are still monopolistic bullies with a stranglehold on digital advertising. David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance, calls for federal regulators to demolish the tech giants’ pipelines, through which about 90% of all new digital ads flow. Google knows it should pay royalties for use of news reports, Chavern says, and is stalling to weaken publishers before serious negotiations begin.

Meanwhile, at papers like The Buffalo News in upstate New York, Google wins glowing praise for funding and leading a free 10-month crash course that News Vice President Brian Connolly says taught his staff how to act on detailed reader-behavior data. With new tools and training, the News is turning casual readers and newsletter readers into subscribers and even advocates for the paper. Company rules forbid the release of more specifics, but Connolly said newsletter subscriptions are up fivefold since The News started work with The Subscription Lab, with more than 80,000 signed up for their flagship “Good Morning, Buffalo” newsletter. 

As part of Subscription Lab, Google paid for consultations with FTI Consulting, which specializes in news product development based on data instead of “gut feelings” that long governed news judgment.

Connolly, who had been managing editor before switching to the business side of the company, says there was a time not long ago when the most sophisticated guidance he could give his staff was a taped-to-a-wall gallery of the front pages of the past year’s 10 best-selling papers. They would draw conclusions from that tableau. But now, real-time tracking allows publishers to see precisely which stories or headlines generate what kind of traffic and which readers are casual as opposed to repeat users of the paper’s website.

Advertising

“What we got out of it was real evidence that readers will support quality journalism,” Connolly said, so long as editors build a strong product and present it to readers the right way. Best of all, he said, the data show investigative journalism builds the News’ competitive edge against other news outlets, a gratifying alignment of newsroom values with business interests.

Google made that happen, Connolly said, and gave his newsroom new hope after a long period in which all indicators were negative. In high praise from a Buffalo native, Connolly describes Google Subscription Lab leader Ben Monnie trudging through winter mornings to work with News staff. Monnie, a veteran of The New York Times digital strategy team, led the Buffalo team to new approaches not by preaching or talking down but by asking questions and working side-by-side to solve problems such as, “Should a newspaper drop its pay wall during blizzards, when demand is high but public safety is at stake?”

Monnie said FTI Consulting documented an average 59% increase in new monthly digital subscribers at the participating papers during the Lab, while while churn – a measure of subscriber losses – fell by 19%. Overall, he said, monthly digital subscriber revenue grew an average of 43% at the participant papers.

“It never felt like they were trying to glean some kind of inside information about us … in some evil way,” says Connolly. “I felt like they understood they had really disrupted our industry and wanted to help us navigate that disruption.” Looking over at Monnie rubbing his eyes with fatigue during a problem-solving session while Connolly too was rubbing his eyes, Connolly said he felt Google’s crew had made the News’ problems their own.

John Stanton, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, scoffs at the idea Google has an altruistic goal. “You have to believe the devil when he tells you who he is,” Stanton said. “I can assure you Google’s motivation is not to save us. They need someone to produce content for them, and that’s all they care about.”

Too simple, says Pete Doucette, the FTI consultant Google hired to work with the Subscription Lab newsrooms for 10 months. “While they may have taken a greater share of publishers’ ad revenue, I think it’s incumbent on publishers to find a business model that works for them,” he said. Granted, his contract is with Google, but Doucette said he thinks Google is earnest in its desire to improve the world by making authoritative journalism sustainable and has a legitimate self-interest in that publishers are Google’s customers and Google’s work supports publishers’ search for a new business model.

Advertising

Monnie said he feels good about working at Google because his bosses at the most senior levels of the company tell him they want journalism to thrive. Google News Initiative’s guiding principle, he said, is this: “Can we support a really robust group of reporters and editors who are doing critical work for democracy all over the world and that this content that is being created by these folks is reaching people who need it.”

Chavern said the publishers he works for understand Google’s technical programs and charitable giving to support news are positive, even as they fear Google’s power. “Both things can be true, but the larger question is, if we’re going to have a future where we’re going to be primarily delivering news digitally, does that system return value back to the people who create it, or doesn’t it?”

Editor’s note: This report has been updated with a correction. For 2018, Google reported $136.36 billion in revenue, not profit.