By Alex Malouf
Is there any company more ubiquitous than Google? The company is everywhere, serving up billions of search engine results every day, powering our phones, helping us with our emails, providing even the directions for us to take. You know you’ve made it when your brand name becomes a verb. Google hasn’t been able to keep to its old motto of ‘do no evil’ entirely, however.
One aspect of life which is changing is the media industry. One the mainstay of the media, newspapers and print publications have been in a steady decline since the mid-1990s. Journalism is dying a slow death. Take the number of journalists in the US – in 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported over half of the newspaper jobs that existed 15 years ago have disappeared. There are many reasons why journalism is on a downward slope: media consolidation; changing consumer habits, and the 2008 financial crash have all hit the industry hard. But the game changer has been the internet, and two companies in particular. Today, Google and Facebook control just over 60 percent of the online ad market globally, and will generate revenues of $176.4 billion this year, according to WARC.
Both companies’ ad models are reliant on content generated by others (both firms are essentially media companies, no matter how much they deny it). The best content is often created by publishers and journalists. It’s no surprise then that Google has for years being looking to work with publishers, to help them both better understand the digital space and generate more revenues from their online presence. Last year, Google launched its News Initiative, a strategy that looked to strengthen quality journalism, support sustainable business models and empower newsrooms through technology. Tools available to publishers include Realtime Content Insights, to better understand user interests, and tools for Google Ad Manager to see who is paying for content and who isn’t. Google also pledged US$300 million over three years to support a raft of journalism-related projects.
Google isn’t being altruistic here; the company is investing this money both for reasons relating to profit and reputation. The very best journalism produces high quality, trusted content that fuels public interest and attention. What we have seen the growth of is fake news over the past couple of years, partly fueled by politics but also by the very business models Google helped to create, the clickbait advertising that generates fast ad revenues. The rise of fake news has happened alongside a decline in trust in journalism.
As publishers’ ad revenues have dropped over the past two decades, they’ve cut back on journalist jobs, closed publications, and ended up with too few editorial roles to produce high-quality content. You don’t need to look to the other side of the world to see this; the number of media roles in Dubai has declined remarkably since 2008.
For me, the crux of the issue is the dearth of journalist roles. Print media has bled too much money and let go of too many journalists. No matter how meaningful Google may be in providing the tools that publishers need to improve their online platforms, it’s not going to replace the money which the industry is bleeding out to both Google and Facebook. If Google is serious about saving journalism, it’s going to have to give publishers much more of its current ad revenues. Otherwise, all we’re looking at is a band-aid solution for an industry that’s dying and we will all lose if the industry that is journalism dies.
Alex Malouf is the past Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators EMENA region. He is currently based in the UAE.