In the shadows of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the public’s trust in news, and the platforms that distribute it, is at an all-time low. As big tech seemingly scrambles to restore users’ confidence in their platforms, Google is introducing new ways to streamline the subscription process for digital news-readers. I recently sat down with Richard Gingras, the long-time vice president of Google News, to discuss the company’s new Subscribe with Google feature, the open web, data privacy, and the search giant’s role in the future of news. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation. -David
DS: Can you give us a quick introduction to what Subscribe with Google is trying to achieve?
RG: A huge focus of our efforts [at Google] is trying to enable a sustainable ecosystem of quality journalism going forward, something I’m more optimistic about today than ever before. I think if we can look through the smoke of disruption, we’re beginning to see seedlings of success of new approaches to journalism at the local level, at the national level, in terms of content and issues, that is extraordinarily exhilarating and inspiring.
And that’s, at its core, what the Google News initiative that we announced is. As I’ve been saying for years, we need to rethink journalism at every dimension. Not that every dimension must change, but we owe it to ourselves intellectually to do that. What’s the relationship with the community? What are the evolving business models? What are the evolving forms and structures of journalism to better serve our communities in an environment where people are consuming information in so many different ways? We can’t simply sit back and say same old, same old. I don’t think I have to convince anyone of that. What the Google News initiative is — which we’ve been working on for six, seven years — is how can we enable innovative efforts in every one of those facets? How can we create, as a technology company, some better tools to enable subscriptions, memberships, and donations to happen?
DS: What are the concerns about the subscription play with Google? I’m wondering, who owns the data that you are getting out of that?
RG: The only data we get is, if we sell the subscription, we have the user’s name and the email address. Our objective here is not to own the customer; our objective is to drive quality journalism in an enduring way. You need to build a relationship with subscribers, because you want that subscription to happen again and again. So we provide the name and the physical address, if that’s necessary. That’s all. It’s your site. We take no data from the site at all.
DS: Are there guarantees to the publishers that that information will not, at some point in the future, be tied to the advertising, to the advertiser products; tied to whatever learnings or future products?
RG: Well, there’s no information. It’s just the name. If we sold it, obviously we have the name, but we’re not getting any data back from your site. The engagement traffic on the site doesn’t come to us at all.
DS: You wouldn’t know what articles that Subscribe is on?
RG: No. I want to step back for a second.Our platform is the open web. We’re a child of the open web. The value and relevance of Google Search is entirely dependent on the richness of the ecosystem of knowledge on the open web. The success of our display ad platforms — that two million publishers used, that generated US$13 billion last year to those publishers — is based on their success on the open web. So do we think journalism is important to our society? Of course we do. But if you look at our business motivations, you can also understand why we do this. It’s in our business interest for publishers to be healthy in the open web.
DS: I have no doubt that there are terrific engineers at Google that believe in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and the John Perry Barlow world, and who are at Google because it is the place to leverage that. What surprised me on a recent visit to the Bay area was, in talking to VCs in particular, there was this tension between the open web and the closed web in conversation. Some of these VCs are leaving the Valley entirely and saying the ideas that we created for this open web are no longer the decentralized internet. And though Google claims that it is part of the open web — given Android, given that you have to sign in to every app that you use with Google — it actually contributed to the closing of this web. And that’s why they say they’re investing in things like Blockchain technologies to move away from that. I’m sure you have a reaction to that.
RG: Yeah, and I choose words carefully here, and I’m not going to speak for Valley VCs. Google is a different and unique animal, and I hope it always continues to be. It’s why I’ve been there. I’m interested in news and I felt that Google was the best place for me to try to have an impact on that. When you say you have to use Google to sign in to any app, that’s not true. You can use Google to sign into apps. There’s benefits to using Google sign-ins. We have a feature called Smart Lock, which doesn’t necessarily require our log-ins, which publishers are using to help keep their users logged in. One of the unfortunate circumstances that we see with the technological development at publishers is they’re never very good at getting people logged on and keeping them on. So we’ve built tools to help them get good at that, regardless of whether they’re using our sign-ins to do it. I’m not saying there’s no cause for criticism of what we do. We are not perfect, we never will be. But we hope to improve, and if there’s anything we’ve changed over the last six years, it’s how we engage with the community of publishers. It’s become intensely more collaborative.
DS: What about within Google? There is this idea that within Google, there’s been a stifling of conservative thought. How is Google managing these ideas of open, free expression?
RG: Google is the most internally transparent corporate culture I’ve ever, ever seen. Astonishingly so. We’re incredibly free and trusting with disclosing information internally. That doesn’t mean you don’t have cultural challenges. We continually try to revisit our culture. It’s not like it’s without issue. I have to tell you, though, I’ve been working in product at Google for nine years — I’ve never been in a product discussion where politics came up. If anything, we’ve always said, the very nature of Google News is diversity of source, diversity of expression. The [question] I keep asking in our discussions in Google Search is what is our job? In many cases it’s to give people the answers. If you ask us “how tall is Jim Comey?” we’ll tell you 6’9”. But with most questions, there is not that simple answer. Our philosophy is: How do we give our users the tools and information they need to develop their own critical thinking, and hopefully come away with a more informed conclusion, and do that in an assiduously apolitical way?
An aside here: Just after the last [U.S. presidential] election I had been scheduled to give a speech at the Newseum about the future of the news. I went through that speech with a fine-tooth comb. I didn’t have to change much. Many of the things I’d talked about forever. But I was so concerned that there were going to be political entities in the audience who said, “But Google, that’s your truth and you’re biased, and what we need is a fairness doctrine for search results to make sure that every side of every question [meets] this ludicrous notion of balance, and objectivity is addressed.” These are among the terrifying concerns I have as we evolve what we do in a complex society.
DS: When you look at the past 30 years of the Valley, you know there’s a lot of talk about the addiction of devices of apps. Do you have thoughts and views, as someone who has grown up in that technology space, of our overall relationship with our technology?
RG: : Yeah, sure I do. People in the Valley can get pretty high and mighty about what they think they do. I think we need to be way more humble. As I often say, technology has value but it doesn’t have values. It’s what we do with it. There’s a lot of bullshit in the Valley. And it’s changed over time.
DS: The Youtube argument and, correct me if I’m wrong, the Google search argument is that we can put parameters into an algorithm, but ultimately the algorithm services what we see: What can you do, or what are you doing, to ensure the toxic stuff isn’t surfacing?
RG: These are delicate issues, and we always have to be concerned about secondary consequences. Some folks say, because of the algorithm at YouTube, if I watch an extremist video, I get another extremist video. And I say, yes that’s true. We don’t want the extremist videos to be there in the first place and if they’re violating YouTube policy they won’t be there for long. But that doesn’t mean there’s [not] a lot of content out there that’s well within policy. And I have to remind people that that same algorithm that is likely to, in a sense, reinforce your interest in a bad subject is the same one that reinforces my interest as a woodworker in woodworking videos, or someone who is interested in human rights and transgender rights in the same way. And so the challenge here has been how do we achieve that delicate balance with our policies? One secondary consequence is that sometimes monetization is restrained from anything that is perceived to be controversial, even though it’s quite valuable. Transgender rights is an example. So there are tricks here, and again I think we certainly haven’t nailed it. No one would admit that we have. But there’s a lot of work being done to try to do so.
DS: Do we as society need to be thinking more firmly about what kind of regulations or legal parameters we put around this stuff in a bigger way?
RG: Again, one has to be careful. I do think, certainly, one thing we’re increasingly looking at is how there can be more transparency. How can there be more transparency, for instance, beyond advertising, beyond political advertising? I’m not going to sit here and say that as technology evolves, as societies evolve, does one not have to think about regulation according to that? Certainly. And in fact we constantly are looking at — with our own approaches, with our algorithms — how do we do that, how do we be more transparent how do we give people a better sense of what we do with mechanisms that actually allow people to check and audit it. I think that’s extremely valid.
DS: One of those regulations that’s coming out May 25th is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, and it’s forcing, not just technology companies, its forcing banks, its forcing cable telcos to all comply with these regulations. But just this week, four publishing groups wrote a fairly scathing note to Google about Google’s approach to publishers on the GDPR. They said your proposal severely falls short on many levels and seemed to lay out a framework more concerned with protecting your existing business model in a manner that would undermine the fundamental purposes of the GDPR and the efforts of the publishers to comply with the letter and spirit of the law. I take it you disagree?
RG: There are cheap minor political dynamics at play here. I’m not an expert in this so I’m going to keep this at a very high level. But the answer is specifically this: The law pretty clearly states that, for instance, for building profiles on users for the purpose of advertising or whatnot, you need the permission of your users. So what we said is, yes — with regard to our capabilities, publishers would need to get permission of their users. They’re not our users, they’re their users.
In doing so, that permission doesn’t apply just to Google’s ad platforms, it applies to any ad platform that they’re using. So it’s not necessarily specific to us. Also, as we’ve made very clear, there’s no change in our business relationships with the publishers.
DS: I’m curious whether tying this back to the Subscribe with Google concept the two are the same or not, in that on the one hand it seems like you’re saying, we’re just a vendor over here and you can subscribe with us. But on the other hand you’re saying well, you know, we’re the controller of…
RG: Well no. Let us be clear: Obviously we have advertising on Google search. We need the permission of our users. By the way, you might know that we spent the last two or three years getting those structures in place with Google users. This has been coming for a long time. No particular surprises here. So we have to get them for our users but if you’re using our ad platforms on your site you need the permission of your users. We can’t get permission of your users. We’re not going to come up with the wording of your users. Axel Springer put out an interesting article the other day just about all the language variations they were trying, to see how they could best get their users to say yes. That’s up to them.
DS: Taking all the business models, the regulations, step back 30,000 feet. What does an ideal journalism ecosystem look like to you?
RG: I think it’s important, when one looks at the ecosystem for news, to both understand and deconstruct what happened to the old model and where we need to go going forward. So what happened? In 1985 a subscription to the Globe and Mail or the Dallas Morning News was a subscription to the non-interactive Internet of its day. It was basically every bit of information you needed to enjoy your life. When I was 16, my dad wanted to buy me a used car, so he went to the Providence Journal. Would any of you go to your newspaper to buy a used car for your kid today? No. There are better ways, other commercial entities. Interestingly, News Corp in Australia owns the largest real estate listing site in Australia. But it’s on a different balance sheet. It doesn’t cross subsidise the news. Same with Axel Springer in Germany. They sold their newspapers. They bought the biggest job listing site in Germany on a different balance sheet.
User behaviours changed in terms of what you use a news site for, and with it went the advertising dollars. I can assure you that if Google didn’t exist this still would have happened. And yes we do, through our ad tools, help some of those sites monetize themselves, as we help any publisher monetize themselves. In truth, all those companies were really in the ad business primarily, and the news was kind of a nice wrapper. You know I love the old newspaper meme: Why is the news section on the outside of all the other sections? Because when it rains the damage happens to the news section and not all the sections that actually generate the advertising.
So what does that say about the future? I’m increasingly encouraged by what I see, but I think it’s a very very different approach. And that’s the kind of success we’re seeing. It’s a much more community-centric approach. Earlier there was a conversation that you need to think more about marketing, which is true, but I also think that, in a different way, I think you need to be smarter about community organizing, to be smarter about understanding the natural interest of your community.
There’s an interesting publication in Bristol, England: The Bristol Cable. They don’t have marketers on staff, they have community organizers on staff and they go out and they arrange town halls and they’re trying to assess the needs and interests of their community, they’re trying to figure out how do they engage with their community. Because if you are going to get people to buy something you have to understand their value proposition and the value proposition [today] isn’t the value proposition of 40 years ago.
So how do you understand the community’s needs? How do you address those needs? How do you rethink what the very nature and form of journalism is in this day and age? How do the contracts evolve in an environment where we’re all snacking off our cell phones? To what extent do narrative styles have to change? To what extent is it more immersive or less immersive or whatever? To what extent can data journalism become a stronger part of what we do, so that we’re not just covering news through stories and anecdotes but providing additional context to help people understand why something is important or not important to them? As we deal with these challenges, all of us as institutions — including Google, including the press — have to really rethink what our roles are in this very different world.
One of my concerns when I look out there at what happens in the world of news is disproportionality. You’ve got the British Parliament attack in London and our cable news networks in the United States go wall to wall with it for three days. A sad event, four people died.
On those same three days, there were mass murders of four or more people that didn’t get covered. We have people going to the polls living in a farming community in Iowa concerned about terrorism, not understanding what the real needs and interests of their communities are. Can we not use data journalism to rethink that? What I’ve suggested metaphorically is we give people data every day in the weather report.
Can we create a weather report for our communities? If I’ve got a membership supported community news organization where I’m not so concerned about every click because they’re not paying for access, they’re paying because they believe in your mission. Why is it not that, where that “weather report” gives me a sense of my community beyond the meteorological? Does it give me a sense of the crime rate in my community and why it’s different from other parts of my world? The air quality index, graduation from schools so that I can get a better sense of what’s real and what’s not. My own personal favourite definition of journalism is to give citizens the tools they need to be good citizens: to give them the information they need to when they go to the polls to make smart decisions about what’s important for their communities and that’s not what’s happening today.
These are hard hard problems. And particularly in an environment where we’ve got increasing trends towards populism and we’ve got politicians who degrade everything that the people in this room are doing.
We have to address these things. And just to continue my rant one more time, yesterday was World News Day and it was a fabulous event celebrating the value of journalism, celebrating the quality of journalism. Telling stories about how the stories were covered, interspersed with music, emotionally resonating the themes of what we do. That was so powerful, and I came to Canada from the States where two weeks ago we had this ludicrous event called the White House Correspondents Dinner.
I have no issue with Michelle Wolf as a comedian doing what she did but why would we take that platform, an opportunity to guide people in the value and values of journalism, and not do tit for tat with politicians looking to tear you down? We really have to rethink these things, all of us really pushing forward. What are the models we want to see, including tech platforms like Google?
I was a founder of The Trust Project for pushing on the architecture of journalism. Can we be more transparent, can we give people a better sense of what they’re seeing? Media literacy training is important, but can you design a new site that actually doesn’t need a user manual to tell you what you’re seeing, tell you what’s fact based coverage versus opinion? And I transfer that to Google today to our experience, as well — how do we evolve our user experience so people understand what they’re seeing? If you can find anything that’s findable in the corpus of expression, I don’t want you believing that every result you see is truth just because we surfaced it for you.
DS: I agree with everything you said, but one small asterisk that I’d put there is that part of that is driven by the incentive structure. From my experience, what happens in the newsroom is a direct result of what happens in the boardroom. For decades, but particularly in the last ten to 15 years, the boardroom decisions have been driven by scale and they’ve been driven by reach and a lot of that is not Google’s fault. But Google has provided a tool —
RG: Let’s be honest with ourselves. Because that’s not valid. I mean as in that didn’t start with the internet, right? Frankly, you can go back to tabloid journalism in that regard. I mean, you know, what bleeds leads. Give me a break. These are important issues for society, but when I hear people say “oh God Facebook is causing your addiction” I go wait a second — we’ve been driving addiction with media since the day we started producing it.
DS: I’m not saying that you are responsible —
RG: No, I don’t say it with that intent. I have no problem with people criticizing us for what we do. I’m just saying let’s look at the questions on a larger scale and understand what’s really going on because it ain’t as simple as that.