Credit: Google News Showcase

At the beginning of 2021, Google launched Google News Showcase, a licensing programme for news publishers in the UK, giving them a panel of three stories in the Google News hub.

This week, Google announced its latest big signing onto the platform - The Guardian, following other big publishers like BBC News, Sky News, The Mirror, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail. Since launching News Showcase in October 2020, there have been 1,500 news publications signed up across 16 countries.

Google claims that Showcase helps more readers discover quality journalism, form deeper relationships with their audience, and pay publishers for daily curated content. But Google declined to comment on the exact nature of these private deals, only saying there was a "consistent formula" to the payments.

News publishers must provide three stories a day for their panel. Google says that Showcase is focused on comprehensive current events journalism in the public interest and publishers must have a digital offering.

These "newsroom editor's picks" can include paywalled and beyond-the-paywall stories. Users can also "follow" news outlets on Google News to stay on top of their stories. Google licenses the text and other assets needed to run Showcase.

It is targetting a broad range of publications that provides value to the communities they serve. However, Google's current priority seems to be signing up local news publishers to the platform. As it stands there are 240 UK titles on Showcase and 93 per cent of the titles are local news publishers.

A question of time and money

The issue here is that some of the smallest publishers do not have the capability to hit the three daily story quota. The recent Index Report by the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) showed that a typical independent news publisher has the equivalent of two or three full-time staff members. The quota is a big ask for many.

This requirement could tempt publishers to churn out content to meet the criteria - which is precisely what news publishers are constantly warned against, as low-quality journalism is eroding public trust.

That is a view expressed by Eliz Mizon, a media writer and a freelancer for the Charitable Journalism Project and Media Reform Coalition, where she writes and researches about topics facing public interest news.

"I have concerns about smaller outlets being required to publish three stories a day - encouraging low-quality clickbait journalism in an environment that already has plenty," she says.

"I can also see no reason to assume that support for journalism from big tech is a panacea - we only need to look to Australia's recent legislation to make Facebook and Google pay publishers (the majority of this money went to Murdoch) to see the problems with this relationship."

There is also the question of whether publishers can afford to do it. Even though they are paid for Showcase, some 45 per cent of independent publishers say staff salaries are their greatest expense, according to the same PINF Index. Some publishers will be reluctant to cover the cost of producing enough content for the platform.

While financial support from new sources is welcome, Mizon says it is only meaningful if it fixes long-term systemic problems in journalism, like low reporter salaries.

Those that fall by the wayside

The alternative is that publishers who cannot meet the quota will simply miss out. The Independent Community News Network (ICNN) represents more than 100 independent UK news publishers. Deputy director Matt Abbott confirmed to that ICNN is in talks with Google over a deal that aims to bring some of its community members onto Showcase - but not all.

"The independent news sector is incredibly diverse and there are different sizes of organisations throughout the sector, some of which will be able to manage the requirements involved in partnering with Google on this project, and others will not," he says.

Reasons for that might be the size of the team, that they are a print-first news publication or that they intentionally publish less as part of a slow news model.

"There's multiple reasons why organisations would not want to be involved, but we have discussed it with our members and there are a fair few that want to get involved. It could be a valuable partnership if we can get the parameters right."

Those parameters are not currently clear and Abbott was not able to disclose more details on the negotiations at this stage. He said that Showcase does have the potential to increase the branding, reach, revenue and traffic of news publishers.

One news organisation which has seen this impact is Clear Sky Publishing Group, which joined Showcase at the beginning of May this year. The CEO Simon Bax confirmed to via email that payments to the group have been sufficient to hire an additional journalist with expanded geographical coverage.

For Abbott, perhaps most importantly, the deal between ICNN and Google would represent community news publishers having a "seat at the table" in discussions with big tech platforms - something sorely lacking in recent years.

"We are buoyed by Google's interest to be involved with us, we've been in discussions with Facebook and Google over the past two years about multiple ways for them to invest in this sector. Some of it is slow-moving at times, but overall we are working towards a more positive relationship between independent media and big tech," Abbott says.

He added that while some publishers may feel aggrieved that they will miss out on Showcase, other members have stated they have no interest in being part of it because they are opposed to big tech's involvement in community journalism. ICNN from here will work to act in the interests of the majority of its membership.

"We have to look out for the interests of those organisations which are interested in taking part and see what we can do for those who cannot take part, maybe by moving the goalposts slightly or look elsewhere for revenue stream solutions."

Next steps

The UK government is proposing a new pro-competition regime for digital markets in the form of the Digital Competition Bill. This would seek to tackle substantial and entrenched power (such as the relationship between the largest regional news groups and big tech companies) and protect smaller businesses, consumers and competition.

Jonathan Heawood, executive director of PINF commented: "It's great that the Guardian will receive some additional funding from Google, but there are hundreds of small newsrooms across the UK that haven't yet received any direct support from the big tech platforms.

"We hope that the forthcoming Digital Competition Bill will help to spread platform money much more fairly across the whole news industry, so that we can build a genuinely diverse and sustainable future for public interest news."

News outlets interested in signing up for Showcase can get in touch with the team here

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