Toward a Healthy and Sustainable Future for Journalism

Richard Gingras
17 min readOct 10, 2019

Keynote delivered to the 75th Assembly of the Society of Inter-American Press. (SIP-IAPA) on Monday, October 7, 2019 in Miami, Florida.

Good morning. It’s an honor for me to speak here at the Inter American Press Association 75th General Assembly.

SIP has been a relentless guardian for freedom of expression across the continent through the long course of its history, a mission of the highest importance and one Google is deeply committed to as well. Let me start by thanking all of you for the work you do in keeping the free expression legacy alive in these challenging times.

I’ve been dancing at the intersection of media, technology, and public policy for my entire career. Nearly 50-years. At each career chapter I have worked on the expansion of media distribution.

It began with the first use of satellites to deliver television programs to far flung television stations in real time at exponentially less expense than leased telephone lines. It changed the breadth and nature of television programming. Satellite distribution triggered the explosion of cable television. It multiplied the number of channels users could see from five to five hundred.

I created one of the first interactive news products in 1980 using broadcast teletext to give users, for the first time, on-demand access to news and information. It was the Internet before there was one.

Then, with the dawning of the internet in 1994, I worked on the creation of online “portals” and managed a search engine (Excite) that eased consumer access to the extraordinary ecosystem of knowledge and expression that evolved into the Internet of today.

The Internet has indeed put the printing press into everyone’s hands.

Two weekends ago I was in Cartagena Colombia for our annual Newsgeist Unconference for Latin America. Two hundred people from across the spectrum of media in South America, from traditional publishers to digital players, from civil society organizations to data scientists, from aging veterans like me to young millennial reporters looking to make their mark. It was a great opportunity to engage once more with this extraordinary and vibrant community, as we discussed the great opportunities and challenges journalism faces today.

I don’t have to tell you of the significant challenges to the free press we are seeing around the world. Populist leaders are campaigning against the press and the role that journalism must play in open societies. The struggle between political regimes and the role of the press is something you know well. You’ve seen this movie before. Maybe your experience can guide us.

Today, I will focus on the future of news and the need to evolve our journalistic approaches to meet the needs of today’s digital society, of today’s generation of users. I will discuss the need to evolve sustainable business models for quality journalism in our digital age. But let’s first step back to see where we came from, because it might help us understand where we are headed.

In 1994, when SIP made its seminal Declaration of Chapultepec in defense of freedom of expression, the world wide web had fewer than 3,000 websites. Today, it is comprised of more than 1.7 billion websites. An explosion of expression beyond what we have ever seen, nor could have fully imagined. In open societies, the Internet is the epitome of free expression.

It changed how we communicate, how we learn, how we shop, how we sell, how we are informed of the issues of the day and how we form opinions about the issues of the day.

It changed how we develop perceptions of the world around us and of each other.

The Internet exponentially expanded the marketplace of ideas, the marketplace for information and services. It has brought extraordinary value to our societies and introduced new challenges — to our institutions, to our politics, and yes, to journalism itself.

At an existential level it poses the paradoxical question: how can democracies survive and thrive in an environment of unfettered free expression? Democracies succeed by their ability to achieve consensus between different views. How do democracies thrive in an environment that requires bridging gaps between alternate realities? How can we bridge that gap with an abiding structure of commonly-accepted facts from respected sources? Facts matter. The profession of journalism matters.

For all of us who are involved in the pursuit of journalism, from the journalists themselves to publishers who support their efforts to the role of Google in guiding users to that important work, how can we evolve new approaches in quest of commonly-understood facts and not fall prey to amplifying our divisions?

Yes, the Internet happened. It dramatically lowered the barriers to publishing. It created a vast new marketplace for information, a new marketplace that offers exponentially more choice than the world of print. A richness of choice that triggered dramatic changes in consumer behavior.

Think back thirty years ago to newspapers like Clarín, El Tiempo, Folha, or for that matter, the Providence Journal, where my dad kept the presses running. You could think of them as the Internet of their communities. They weren’t interactive but they offered all the information one might need to live one’s daily life. Yes, the local news, but also all the mundane but useful information one might want — from job listings to movie reviews, from articles about fashion trends to recipes and much much more. Yes, mundane, but immensely valuable as a magnet to advertisers.

The vast marketplace of Internet changed our behaviors. Think about the differences.

When I turned sixteen and was old enough to drive, my dad bought me a used car through the classifieds of the local newspaper. Would you do that today? You’d go to Craigslist in the US or Mercado Libre in Latin America.

When my mom wanted a new recipe for Sunday dinner she clipped one from the newspaper’s food section, along with coupons for discounts on the ingredients. Now my spouse and I go to, or New York Times Cooking. Or we order food to be delivered from an array of restaurants.

When I graduated from college I found my first job in the job listings of the Washington Post. Today, that would happen on in the US or Touchstone in Germany.

Years later when I could afford a house I went to the Los Angeles Times. Now I’d go to Zillow or Real in Australia, or the many home listing sites in this region.

Our information-access behaviors have changed. We go to different sources, different websites, different businesses. Not surprisingly, the advertising dollars moved with those behaviors.

This has not been good for the business models of newspapers. As consumer behavior changed, the business model became less effective. The ad revenue generated by classifieds, by movie ads, by supermarket ads is no longer what it once was. And it was that revenue that cross-subsidized the serious journalism. Hard news in general interest newspapers has never been a major draw for advertisers.

Some media companies responded by investing or acquiring new online businesses. In Australia News Corp owns, the largest real estate listings site. In Germany Axel Springer owns Stepstone, the largest job site. But these businesses are separate. They have their own balance sheets, different ownership structures. Understandably they no longer subsidize the creation of news on The Australian or Bild.

Bottom line: the business of journalism changed. That does not mean providing quality journalism cannot be a successful business. However, the models allowing journalism to flourish will be different, and in the view of some, more effective than the past.

How do today’s publishers build these relationships with people who have not grown up subscribing to newspapers (much less receiving physical papers)?

How can publishers foster those relationships through new engagement, through deep and meaningful coverage, in a world where the millennial generation is likely to do what many generations have done — develop an affinity with new sources of news?

How do news outlets impact the lives of readers in positive ways?

This is our context for news media today. These are the challenges and opportunities that journalists, publishers and tech companies like Google face in collaborating towards a successful future.

Google has engaged in many ways to find and support solutions. We continue to learn and evolve our approaches. I see no other path.

Google supports publishers and journalists by helping people find their journalist work and sending them directly to your sites. Today, we send more than 24 billion visits each month to news sites.

This traffic has enabled many smaller or emerging publishers to get discovered, grow a business, and find success online. It has enabled legacy publishers to expand their audiences far beyond the range of their print distribution. More news is being consumed than ever before, throughout the day, in new and different ways, from a mix of sources both old and new.

When I was in Cartagena I had discussions with publishers across the region, from Mexico to Argentina. In every instance, publishers were as eager to work more closely with Google as we are willing to work with them.

Consider our efforts with reader revenue, with subscription tools. That was a collaboration from the start, involving publishers from around the globe. The result was the creation of a suite of tools that publishers can use at their option to increase subscription revenue.

The business relationship with Subscribe with Google is powerful and unique. 95% of the revenue generated through our subscription tools goes to the publisher along with the customer information necessary to further build engagement. It is available to all publishers — large and small, traditional and digital.

Consider this is in comparison to other players where the revenue share is 50% to you and your customer’s name is unknown to you.

We are seeing promising growth in reader revenue in Latin America. La Nación in Argentina disclosed it has reached 250,000 digital subscribers, and Brazilian newspapers such as O Globo and Estadao have seen tremendous growth, increasing digital subscriptions 74% and 56% respectively last year.

Our Google News Initiative is investing $300 million to help news publishers around the world develop new products and business models that fit the publishing marketplace the Internet has enabled.

One new marketplace is for audio programming that is being enabled by smart speakers and smart phones — from news reports to podcasts of all varieties. The New York Times sees this environment as one where they are the disruptor not the disruptee. Their podcast, The Daily, now reaches more than two million daily listeners. We’re at the early stages, but Google is making large investments with news publishers to develop this powerful new market for the spoken word.

Google is also making major investments in tools for journalists in your newsrooms. We are applying our abilities with machine-learning to provide free tools that can give journalists the power they need to do their work in this digital world — and reduce some of the drudgery along the way. I speak of tools like Backlight, which we are now testing with many of you, that allows journalists to more easily analyze massive collections of documents, or tools that can turn a stack of restaurant code violations into a spreadsheet.

Google has been at the forefront of the evolution of fact check organizations around the world. We have eagerly supported efforts like Trust Project and other initiatives around the world to help journalism organizations earn the credibility they deserve by standing out in the maelstrom of expression each of us encounters.

And with projects like Data Commons we’re working to make it easier to give context to the stories of the day — by making it easier for journalists and search engines to deliver more of a data-driven context. Can our citizens be better citizens if we give them the tools to understand what events in our world are rare anomalies versus dangerous trends we should all be aware of.

Last but not least, we continue to improve how we connect people to the most authoritative sources of reporting. Just last month we made ranking updates and published changes to our search rater guidelines to help better recognize original reporting — by surfacing it more prominently in Search and increasing the visibility of the original work.

As part of this effort our systems are expressly looking to identify those outlets that are more likely to create original feet-on-the-street reporting and give added emphasis to presenting their work. Hereto, the evolution of technologies like machine-learning is allowing us to do this job better, to understand the components and structures of evolving news stories, to give users the context they need. This will continue to be a journey of ongoing progress as our abilities grow and as the ecosystem of expression changes. That mission will never be fully accomplished.

Several weeks ago, I did a deeply detailed interview with the Global Editors Network about our efforts with original reporting. I urge you to read it.

Also, two weeks ago we introduced new tools to help websites and publishers around the world have more control over what information you wish to make available on Google in the interest of the work of your journalists and your brands being found by your audiences. I’ll talk about those in more detail in a few minutes.

I imagine that this may be the first time you’re hearing about some of these features and details about the way news works on Google. If so, it’s on us to make sure the common misunderstandings are corrected, which I hope I can do in part today.

Now, let’s discuss an issue that I know you have been talking about over the last few days.

Earlier this year, the European Union passed a new copyright directive. Part of the directive, Article 15, gives European press publishers more control over the reproduction and communication to the public of their publications, with exceptions allowing the use of hyperlinks, facts, and “individual words and very short extracts.”

This summer, France became the first country to implement this part of the directive — passing a law that will go into effect at the end of October. We fully respect copyright and we respect the need to modernize it in the world of digital.

We also respect the need, particularly in these times, to maintain open access to the internet itself. That is core to the role of journalism in an open society and to the roles of each of us as citizens. We respect the importance for Google Search to be fair and equitable in helping users around the world find the information they need.

We take seriously our role to help citizens of every society find the tools and information they need to be good citizens. That means helping people find high-quality and trustworthy information from a diversity of sources — large traditional sources, global media players, new digital outlets, local news publishers or specialty sites in health or food. From the written word to the spoken word with podcasts and audio programming.

I marvel at the amazing variety of players producing quality journalistic today — different areas of focus, different business models, different ways of connecting with readers. In Latin America alone, we see local players such as Debate in Mexico grow to have one of the largest national audiences; digital pure players such as Infobae become one the most read news sites in Spanish; we see centennial outlets such as La Nación being global leaders in data journalism; and up and coming start ups such as Nexo Jornal in Brazil and Red/Acción in Argentina aiming to define once again the connection of journalism with its readers.

When users come to Google we sort through all of those — the thousands, indeed millions, of instances of online journalism focused on a particular topic, and give users the best information based on the relevance of the results to their search query.

Google’s users trust us because we are principled, fair and equitable in connecting them with the work of this diverse array of publishers and journalists.

That’s why we don’t accept payment from anyone to be included in search results. We sell ads, not search results, and every ad on Google is clearly marked and set apart from the actual search results.

Again, we never accept payment from anyone to be included in search results and we don’t pay for links to be included in search results. Doing so would skew the options we should provide. It would undermine the trust users have in how Search and News work on Google. We are proud of how deeply users around the world trust Google in giving them the best answers to their questions each and every second of the day. It is critical we respect that trust, ever so important in these tumultuous times.

So how are we addressing the new copyright law and the rights of publishers online?

Currently, when we display news results, we show a headline, which links directly to the relevant news site. For most results, but not all, we also display a short preview of the article, such as a few lines of text or a thumbnail image. These previews can help users decide whether a result is relevant to their search, and whether they want to click on it.

Not all search results include previews or need previews. It has been the case for several years that our top news results in Search and in Google News only use headlines with no previews (also referred to as snippets). News headlines are carefully written by journalists to inform the reader and compel their interest in going deeper. With news, previews are not necessary.

Indeed, over the years publishers have expressed their concern that previews on news results might be giving away the story. Publishers were pleased when we made those changes in Google News several years back.

For many areas of content, for example recipes, previews can be very useful in helping a user decide which result to click on. Most publishers are keenly aware of this and do various tests to see how best to present their content in the interest of it being found and accessed.

When the French law comes into force next month, we will not show preview content in France for a European news publication unless that publisher explicitly uses the tools to tell us what we can display in the interest of their articles being found by Google’s users.

Whether or not a publisher agrees to make available a preview and/or a thumbnail will not impact how we assess the relevance of an article, and it certainly won’t affect a site’s inclusion in our index.

Sadly, I saw a press release from a major publishing association last week that suggested we would “not index” publishers who did not provide authorization to use snippets or thumbnails. That is simply NOT true. Indexing will not be affected; our scoring of relevance and other site characteristics will not change; only the presentation of the sites’ results will vary, based on the extent of the preview content that publishers authorize us to use on our surfaces.

There is also nuance here that’s important to understand. Google won’t change the way it determines how relevant a document is. But neither will users. Previews can be helpful to users in deciding which results are relevant to them, particularly for non-news content. So publishers may see traffic effects independent of any ranking changes by Google. But again, you can best decide what works best for you.

Two weeks ago we released the new tools I’ve just mentioned. Tools that publishers around the world can use to decide which elements of their content can be used in presenting the availability of their work on Google. Although these tools may be used by European publishers, I want to make clear that these metatags are available for publishers everywhere, today.

The tools provide more granular settings that publishers can use to indicate whether a snippet preview can be used and how long that snippet might be. Publishers can indicate whether or not a thumbnail image can be used, and if yes, what size might the thumbnail image be. Publishers can indicate how many seconds of a video can be shown, if any, before clicking to see the entire video. Publishers can decide for themselves what types of previews work best in attracting people to their sites. We will reflect those decisions in Search and in News

As I noted earlier, we never accept payment from anyone to be included in search results and we don’t pay for links or promotional elements like snippets to be included in search results. Doing so would not only skew the options we might provide, but it would ultimately undermine the trust users have in how Search and News work on Google.

How much value does Google Search bring to publishers and journalists to help enable their success?

Publishers want to be found by readers. This has always been true. It’s core to any publisher’s effort to grow their audience and grow their revenue. Traditionally print publishers did this by paying newsstands to display their newspapers and magazines. You do this today. Google provides this service for free.

This traffic Google drives is significant — in fact more than 24 billion visits to news publishers each month. Nine thousand visits every second.

This provides real economic value to publishers. Deloitte estimates each click is worth between 4 and 6 euro cents to large publishers in Europe. Publishers can use this traffic to build audiences and grow revenue from subscriptions and advertising. I’ll let you do the math, whether 5 cents or 1 cent. The numbers are large.

On the advertising front, yes, the vast competitive marketplace of the Internet has disrupted the publishing industry. User behaviors have changed.

Google has helped there as well. Google provides advertising tools to publishers wherein the publisher receives the vast majority of the revenue. Most of you use our advertising marketplace tools. Last year, Google sent 14.5 billion dollars to publishers around the world.

The behavior of advertising has changed in many ways, but in others, not at all. Advertisers have always preferred their message be associated with relevant content: advertise cook pots next to recipes. But it has also become an efficient, performance-driven marketplace. That market efficiency has been a boon to small businesses — and that is no small part of Google’s success. That cabinet-maker in Lyon in France can now cost-effectively reach potential customers in Brussels or Berlin or Boston or Buenos Aires.

We are aware of the impact the Internet has had on the publishing ecosystem. We believe it is important we do our part in enabling a stronger future for news. Globally we’ve contributed as much if not more than any private entity toward the future of news.

We are distributing hundreds of millions through our various initiatives to help publishers and journalists develop new revenue streams and explore innovations in gathering and presenting news. Tools. Training. Thousands of projects.

Google will continue to work alongside the news industry to address the challenges and opportunities we’ve discussed today. There’s a lot more we can do together and a lot more to learn over the coming months and years. We will continue to invest in the future of journalism such that it can find it’s models of independent sustainability.

I believe all of us can agree on this: journalism is best if it is independent in its forms of support. It is important to be wary of reliance on the support of others, be they governments or partisan business interests or platforms whose success may not be as persistent or permanent as some might expect

Key to everything we’ve touched on today is a single word: collaboration. Partnering to confront challenges like misinformation, evolving business models, and making use of new technology to further quality journalism.

This has long been at the core of our efforts and will continue to be the spirit we bring as we move move forward together.

Google’s success is greatest in open societies. The impact of journalism is also greatest in open societies. We have common objectives. Frankly, that is why I do the job I do. When journalism succeeds, we all do better. We are committed to the efforts I’ve described and plan to do more.

Richard Gingras is Vice President, News at Google. In that role Gingras guides Google’s strategy in how it surfaces news on Google search, Google News, and its smart devices. He also oversees Google’s effort to enable a healthy, open ecosystem for quality journalism, which includes Accelerated Mobile Pages, Subscribe with Google, and various other efforts to provide tools for journalists and news providers. In March 2018, Gingras announced the Google News Initiative, a global effort including $300 million dollars to elevate quality journalism, explore new models for sustainability, and provide technology to stimulate cost-efficiency in newsrooms.