Google Digital News Initiative vs. EU Horizon 2020: Deuce or match point?

Has innovation really replaced strategy as the prime preoccupation of top media managers? It’s not that simple… and if that were true, news publishers should by all means build up the appropriate financial capacity to rethink their innovation culture, advance their best innovations to the market, and look beyond the promises of the Google Digital News Initiative (DNI). DNI’s launch highlights the existence of programs such as Horizon 2020 and many national innovation frameworks that also can support this quest.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 5, 2015

Scaling the funding capacity to match the extent of the challenges is part of the equation. The launch of the €150 million Digital News Initiative fund by Google suddenly awakened many news organisations, while Horizon 2020, the multi-billion European framework for innovation funded by the European Commission, remains largely ignored by the industry.

With a total funding capacity of €270 million over the next three years in the converging media and content industries, DNI and Horizon 2020 are beacons of hope for a content industry wracked with uncertainty. News publishers would do well to have a closer look at what both public and private partners have to offer in terms of not only funding opportunities, but also long-term technology and knowledge transfer capacities, collaborative approaches, and pre-competitive projects.

Is one world better than the other? All bets are off.

Google is officially launching its €150 million ($166 million) fund to invest in online journalism experiments from publishers across Europe. The Digital News Initiative funded by Google is designed to help publishers, ranging from newspapers and other legacy media to startups, build out projects they cannot complete on their own.

The fund will invest in projects for the next three years, covering three rounds of applications starting this fall. The deadline to apply for the first round is December 4. The project is open only to European publishers. According to Google, 120 companies have already signed up. Notably, Google does not plan to take any ownership stake in the projects it funds.

I believe EU’s officers in charge of the Horizon 2020 innovation framework, and particularly the Converging Media and Content program, were stunned and confounded by the recent news from Google. The Converging Media and Content unit is running a seven-year program launched in 2014. With a €39 million indicative grant through 2016, they oversee a global funding capacity worth €245 million over seven years. This unit, part of the larger DG Connect, is not the only one dealing with the challenges of the future digital news and content industries. Unit G2-Creativity provides innovation grants to areas such as interfaces, simulation and visualisation, games engines, immersive experiences…

Surprisingly, the programming teams in charge of the “converging media” and “creative industries” recognize their lack of connection with the news publishing branch. There is just a handful of companies partnering on Horizon 2020, a fraction of the 120 companies that have rushed to apply for grants from DNI.

Estimates are that the commission spent about €70 million on content and converging media innovation projects over the past two years with 50 projects. No news publishers were among the beneficiaries of these grants.

To put that in perspective, the BBC alone was involved in 14 projects with an EC contribution of €7.2 million under the seventh research framework programme between 2007 and 2013.

The European Commission can no longer deny that we are fully engaged in a new converging media world where traditional lines are blurring. That’s why we have started our conversation with research and innovation officers at the Commission level, and why we are teaming up with the New European Media Initiative (NEM) to encourage more creative and content industry players – especially news publishers – to access the EU’s innovation funds. 


Google’s DNI will fund media experiments at different levels:

  • Prototype projects: open to organisations — and individuals — that meet the eligibility criteria and require up to €50k of funding. These projects should be at a very early stage, with ideas yet to be designed and assumptions yet to be tested. It will fast-track such projects and will fund 100 percent of the total cost.
  • Medium projects: open to organisations that meet the eligibility criteria and require up to €300k of funding. It will accept funding requests up to 70 percent of the total cost of the project.
  • Large projects: open to organisations that meet the eligibility criteria and require more than €300k of funding. It will accept funding requests up to 70 percent of the total cost of the project. Funding is capped at €1 million.

In 2013, the company created a precursor to the Digital News Initiative in the form of a €60 million fund to help spur innovation in French media companies. “What is really important… is we want specific projects and not the broad digital agenda or roadmap of publishers,” Ludovic Blecher told Nieman Lab. The best way to effect change at an individual company, and create a chance for another company to duplicate that, is to focus on a project, not a broader goal or hiring for specific positions, he said. “It’s not just a fund,” Blecher said. “It’s about having discussions with publishers.”


Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU research & innovation funding programme ever, offering €80 billion over a seven-year period, from 2014 to 2020. Horizon 2020 promises to drive breakthroughs, discoveries and innovation by taking great ideas from lab to market. It also offers various simplifications over previous Framework Programmes through a unified set of rules for participation.

With support from Horizon 2020, recipients can implement international research and development projects with a typical grant in the range of €1-5 million. Horizon 2020 is divided into several hundred sub-programs, calls, and themes. Publishers and partners looking at Google’s DNI as a promised land may also consider using these grants, especially under two sub-programs: the Fast Track Innovation pilot programme and the Horizon 2020 ICT in the area of Converging Media and Content.

Fast Track to Innovation (FTI) is a pilot program under Horizon 2020. The FTI pilot aims to reduce the time from idea to market and to increase participation in Horizon 2020. It aims to stimulate private sector investment, promote research and innovation with a focus on value creation, development of innovative products, processes and services. The program is initially funded in 2015 and 2016 with a total budget of €200 million. A successful applying consortia can receive €1-3 million, covering 70 percent of the total project costs.

The FTI pilot supports projects undertaking innovation from the demonstration stage through to market uptake, including stages such as piloting, test-beds, systems validation in real world/working conditions, validation of business models, pre-normative research, and standard-setting. It targets relatively mature new technologies, concepts, processes and business models that need a last development step to reach the market and achieve wider deployment. Upcoming deadlines for the Fast Track to Innovation Pilot are 1 December 2015, 15 March 2016, 1 June 2016, and 25 October 2016.

With the Horizon 2020 ICT innovation programs applicants can be granted €1-5 million for technology and product development. Beyond the grant, the programs provide a great opportunity to network with partners, access technology and knowledge transfer opportunities between innovation labs and news organisations. Horizon 2020 ICT calls target a number of verticals and areas of innovation including content technologies and information management (big data, technologies for creative industries and social media, IoT and media).

The Converging Media and Content program within the larger ICT framework funds two categories of program:

  • Innovation actions: new services and technologies, validated via large-scale demonstrations, pilots or close to market prototypes, on social media, personalised user experience, content interaction in a multiplatform scenario, content accessibility. There is no minimum guarantee per topic. Competition among topics is open within the €38 million allocated to Innovation action in ICT 19 (€2-4 million per project).
  • The coordination and support actions (CSAs) address the need to increase awareness and cooperation. The next call for €1 million granted in 2016 will be open in April 2016 and will close in November 2016.

The ICT program offers opportunities for both SME’s and large companies to co-finance their development of new technologies and the improvement of existing technologies. The program targets conventional production companies as well as advanced technology providers. The key is that the applicant is facing a technological challenge or is developing an idea to solve a technical bottleneck. Horizon 2020 ICT is co-financing research, development and demonstration activities.

Funding innovation is not an exclusive competence of private or public international programs. National programmes must be explored as well. The Dutch WBSO, for instance, is a tax credit arrangement specifically aimed at stimulating research and development. The tax relief applies to wage costs of employees directly involved in R&D. In Denmark, InnovationsFonden allocates grants to projects in research, technology development, and innovation, where an individual project can receive co-financing of DKK 2.5 million or more. Additionally, the Danish Market Development Fund allocated DKK 405 million for market maturation of novel and innovative products in 2015. Companies can apply for co-financing of testing and adaption of their products under reality-like conditions or co-financing of guarantees for the end user, to mitigate the buyer’s uncertainty about investing in novel technology.


The EU’s framework program for Research Innovation, Horizon 2020 and its sister programs such as Fast Track Innovation is a key element to innovation in Europe. It serves a wide community of innovation partners in a number of business branches. The Content and Converging Media program is surprisingly overlooked by news publishers.

WAN-IFRA, with its Global Alliance for Media Innovation, is partnering with NEM (the New European Media Initiative) to bridge media companies, academic research partners, tech companies,  and the EU’s officers in charge of the programming of the European funds for innovation. Until now, no operational collective body was in a position to support and coordinate industry-wide programs. Ongoing discussions at the European level were mostly driven by regulatory considerations, with a weak focus on building innovation capacity.

European Commission officers involved in the process realize that they hardly collaborate with publishers on the planning and execution of research programmes within Horizon 2020. On the other hand, publishers do not really understand the scope of the European innovation framework and how they can serve their needs to build the next generation of news services and products. Both parties missed an opportunity to start a actionable discussion at the senior corporate level.

We hope this initiative, kicked off by a meetup co-hosted by iMinds and Brussels University on November 3, will help bridge the gap between the intention for innovation and the operational capacity to innovate, and will contribute to a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities behind Horizon 2020.

On the same day, Roberto Viola, Directorate General for Communications Networks and Content and Technology (DG Connect) at the European Commission, wrote about the need for quality journalism in the era of data abundance.

Coming from one of the highest ranked public officers at the EU, this is an encouraging plea and an encouragement to start the journey to innovation with a fresh perspective.

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