What flavor of press freedom do you want for your society?

Richard Gingras
8 min readJul 7, 2023

A consideration of evolving public policy and the future of journalism

The ecosystem of expression borne of the Internet continues its dramatic evolution. Good, bad and indifferent, the Internet has enabled free expression to a near limitless extent. Each of us can easily express ourselves to anyone and everyone in the world who is willing to listen.

The ecosystem of journalistic expression is already dramatically different. We have thousands of new journalistic sources reaching audiences that were not being served. We have new approaches to how journalism is presented. We have deeper explorations of the statistical dimensions of our societies. We have entrepreneurial successes. We have movements of philanthropic support.

However, we also see disruption, particularly of the publications that preceded the Internet. The revenue losses in some caseds have been devastating. Print-era journalism was heavily reliant on a pre-Internet advertising model that was fractured by the Internet. The high ad prices of the hugely-profitable print era were decimated by the highly-efficient auction structures of digital advertising markets. In 1985, major metropolitan newspapers were the dominant information providers in their communities. Metaphorically, they were the Internet of their communities. Now they are not. Now we have the Internet. Now they are news nodes on that global Internet.

There is a belief that the sustainability of quality digital journalism is in need of financial support. There is a belief that various intermediate players within the infrastructure of the digital ecosystem should provide that support. Regulatory mechanisms have been implemented and others proposed that require certain intermediary players, such as social networks and search engines, to provide that support.

At the same time, journalism is facing a crisis of relevance. The Reuters Institute tells us that the percentage of any society interested in what we might call serious journalism is stuck in the single digits. Google acknowledges that less than 2% of Search queries are about matters of news. In societies like my own, nearly half the population has a strong disregard for what well-respected news organizations have to say.

How can journalism play its role in maintaining informed open societies if its efforts are not perceived to be relevant and valued?

While the journalism community strives to rethink how to perform its role in our digital societies, the governments of the world are considering various approaches to how that digital society should be managed. While such policy initiatives are understandable given the impact the Internet, those efforts also stimulate a broad range of questions relating to their near and longterm impact on a free press, on free expression, and on the openness of the global Internet itself.

I have spent the last decade circling the world, working with journalists, working with publishers, working with various stakeholders on evolving Internet policy. It has been and continues to be an astonishing and illuminating experience. While I’ve worked at the intersection of journalism, technology, and policy for five decades, no past experience comes close to the complexity of challenges our digital societies face. Big complex questions. No simple answers. The challenges are deep and structural. We need to be thinking in years and decades, not weeks and months. Quick fixes are often no more than wishful thinking. At worst, they may result in damaging the foundations of the free press itself.

In my global travel I’ve learned many lessons. I’ve learned that perspectives on free expression vary. I’ve learned that approaches to governance in open societies vary. I’ve learned it’s unwise to suggest that our First Amendment’s codification of free expression is the only and correct one. I’ve learned it’s unwise to imply that the form of democracy we follow is the only and correct one. Societies are different. The challenges are different. There is no one-size-fits all set of answers.

Yet we are understandably impatient. Societies right now are fragile. In a span of a month I visited two countries whose capitol buildings were stormed by rioters angry about election outcomes. There are broad declines in measures of global societal stability. Governments are worried about their foundational legitimacy. It is a tough decade, a tough century to be a true statesman or stateswoman.

While no one would argue that governments have the right and responsibility to craft Internet policy, we should recognize the potential consequences of such policy — on matters of free expression, on matters of freedom of the press, on matters of human freedom.

At core, Internet policy is about a government’s approach to managing the information space of its society. Pursuit of digital policy raises several paradoxical questions: How does one manage free expression in a digital world? How does one manage press freedom in a digital world?

I believe that last question can and should be refined further: What flavor of press freedom do you want for your society?

My personal perspective presumes that a truly open and independent press is one where the role of a journalist isn’t defined by law, and where the independence of a free press is only accomplished with diverse sources of financial support, not a dependence on one. But, my opinion does not matter. In truth, while Google plays a significant role in the information ecosystem, its opinion on internal country policies has very little impact. Governments will decide.

What flavor of press freedom do you want for your society?

Around the world, there are an array of evolving approaches to Internet policy. Each in its own way will impact how support for the press is accomplished. Each in its own way will impact press freedom itself.

The devils, and or the angels, are in the details. The details matter. The intricate “design decisions” matter. Possibly a close inspection of each tradeoff can yield more intentional outcomes:

Is your flavor of press freedom one where press freedom is managed by a press association or associations? What principles do the associations stand for? What are their journalistic standards? Who adjudicates those standards? How does the association represent or not represent the emergence of new voices and new players?

Are there methods to signal to societies the attributes that might guide citizens towards sources of trustworthy fact-driven journalism? How can this be done without engaging in arbitrary determinations? Can or should public policy play a role? Who decides what trustworthy is and how it is defined?

Is your approach to the financial support of press freedom addressed by copyright structures? Intrinsically, copyright structures cannot and will not differentiate on matters of quality or topicality. Will such rate structures stimulate the important journalism many feel is desired? Or will they largely and disproportionately support high-volume producers of content, including content that some will consider misinformation? Will such all-content-is-equal rate structures disadvantage those who seek to produce quality journalism for their communities?

Is putting a tax on links used by platforms that drive discovery of news contrary to the objective of press freedom? Might creating disincentives to link audiences to journalistic voices be self-defeating? Given that journalism is consumed by a very small percentage of our societies, might we recognize the value of free free promotion of journalistic voices.

Is your model of support for press freedom addressed by bargaining codes between the press and specific tech companies? Will bargaining codes fuel change and innovation versus supporting embedded players? Will the outcome be neutral and avoid partisan outcomes? Might bargaining codes create disproportionate distributions similar to copyright structures? Can such a process opreate with sufficient transparency to ensure these outcomes can be verified? Will it undermine the nature of the web as an open ecosystem?

Is your flavor of press freedom enhanced by a government regulator? What is their role? How does one define what journalism is or who does it? How deep into the inner workings of the press might the government go before it breaks the independence of the press we say we want to preserve?

Can one’s definition of press freedom be maintained as legal mechanisms are crafted to address misinformation? Will such laws provide detailed determinations of the nature of disinformation such that it can be identified and curtailed? Can such approaches be effective if exemptions are granted for politicians and/or media? How do we address the overlap between what Jamie Susskind describes as the “hinterland of naughtiness” with a walled garden of legal expression? Where does one draw the lines between awful versus lawful? Might such mechanisms just as easily be used against the press by less well-intentioned leaders?

What flavor of press freedom do you want for the society you live in? What checks and balances must exist to ensure that the letter of the law is not warped over time by the parochial interests of a politically influential few?

I believe that public policy for the direct financial support of the press should not have singular companies, like Google, in the middle of it. Indeed I struggle, as I said recently in testimony before the Canadian Senate, with the inherent wisdom of any country being comfortable with notable financial support for that country’s press being distributed by a specific private company or companies. Do not interpret my statement to suggest Google is not in favor of further support for news or that Google should not be part of the solution. We are in favor of further supporting the news. We want to be part of the solution.

What might be the better approach to gathering and dispersing financial support for journalism — if that is what a society deems important to address? The answer has a huge impact on the larger question of what flavor of free press do you want in your society?

From Google’s perspective, an independent framework for the distribution of financial support might consider the following principles :

  • A framework whose governance does not include Google, or other sources of funding.
  • A framework that is driven by thoughtful criteria that can support the creation of quality journalism for the communities journalists serve.
  • A framework that can support innovation in journalism.
  • A framework that can support the digital transformation of legacy providers.
  • A framework that can enable the emergence of new voices, which would seem critical in our fast-changing digital societies.
  • A framework whose financial resources might be more durably drawn from a broader class of activity than singular companies whose prospects may change over time.

Who knows what the Internet looks like in 10, 20, 50, 100 years? A regulatory regime for a space as important as the press must be more durable than the current business models and margins of a couple of companies.

But again, that’s not for Google to decide. It will be decided by individual societies and their governments. It will be decided, I hope, with the informed influence of the journalism community, of civil societies, and of an informed influence that considers the long term view of press freedom and its future.

We are at a critical point in the evolution of our digital societies. We are at a critical point in our understanding of free expresion in our digital societies. We are at a critical point in the role of the press in our societies. The the future of the press and the future of those societies will be determined by those answers.

Richard Gingras is the global vice president of news at Google. In that role Gingras focuses on how Google surfaces news on Google’s consumer services and as well as Google’s effort to enable a healthy, open ecosystem for quality journalism. This includes the Google News Initiative, Google’s global investment in efforts to elevate quality journalism, explore new models for sustainability, and provide technology to stimulate cost-efficiency in newsrooms.

Gingras serves on the boards of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, the First Amendment Coalition, the James W Foley Legacy Foundation, the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Gingras has walked the bleeding edge from satellite networks to search engines, from Apple to Excite to Google. He knows that innovation is hard. He readily concedes he’s made more mistakes than you.