Google’s Richard Gingras: Publishers must stress value to audiences

Speaking to WAN-IFRA’s Valérie Arnould, Google Vice President of News Richard Gingras shares his views on marketing news content, fighting fake news, the AMP initiative, and more. Gingras will speak on the future of news at the World News Media Congress, 7-9 June in Durban, South Africa.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | May 17, 2017

(Photos by heisenbergmedia for WAN-IFRA.)

WAN-IFRA: You meet many publishers and journalists around the world. After listening to them and seeing what they do, how do you think the news media will develop in the next couple of years?

Richard Gingras: Clearly, we’re living in a very different world, where we see dramatic changes in how people consume information. We see changes in how people form opinions about subjects. It’s also a different world in that the economics of information have changed. The internet represents a vast new marketplace for information that’s dramatically different in size, scope, and depth from the ecosystem of 40 years ago.

What I expect to continue to see over the next couple of years, and what I hope to see, is continued innovation in the products that publishers create to address these opportunities and challenges.

That, obviously, involves everything from understanding what kind of news products different audiences might be interested in and compelled by; different journalistic approaches that might help users get a better understanding of important subjects; and new techniques for not only understanding audiences but developing new relationships with audiences. All of that, I think, is particularly important, given that we will see publishers, I believe, move towards a greater reliance on subscriptions versus simply advertising.

Obviously, if people are going to subscribe to content, it’s important that they have a good understanding of the value proposition of what’s being offered.

Could you be a bit more concrete? What do you mean by “value proposition”?

As I mentioned, we’re seeing more and more publishers look at driving consumer revenue, at driving subscriptions. Again, this is a completely new marketplace of information. But I think the rules of the marketplace don’t change. People will pay for what they value.

I think many news organizations – not all of them, and this is based heavily on my own experience here in the United States – came out of a period of extreme success, where they were dominant in their markets, where marketing really wasn’t a terribly important dimension of what they needed to do. The local newspaper was the information portal of its day.

This is a different environment. It’s far more competitive. For example, I noted recently that a local newspaper in the United States did research on why people were giving up their subscriptions. The number-one cited answer was, “I now subscribe to The New York Times,” which from their perspective is a national publication (the newspaper was in the Midwest). Which tends to suggest that the subscribers to that paper and the audience for that paper did not have a very good grasp on the value proposition of that paper:

  • What is the news organization?
  • What value is it providing to me?
  • How is it helping me be smarter?
  • How is it helping my community be stronger, helping my community understand its issues and respond to them?

I think that is the key challenge: How does one understand the audience enough to develop appropriate value propositions that they will respect and pay for?
– Richard Gingras, Google Vice President, News

The Washington Post, The New York Times and some of the new players seem to emphasize convenience for readers – such as providing a wide variety of access points – just as much as they emphasize the value of their content.

Absolutely. That’s what I mean when I ask if there needs to be greater emphasis on marketing, on understanding the market. On understanding audience needs, not just for those who currently subscribe, but for those who don’t subscribe as well. Understanding on a more granular basis what their interests are, and what they value, so it can be reflected back to them – not only in the content as it’s produced, but in the brand and how it presents itself.

I think back to the world of consumer goods, where marketing is such a strong element of how they look at their business. It’s not just creating a good product – it’s, “How do I present it to the user? How do they understand my value?” I don’t think it’s enough to just say, “Subscribe to my newspaper because the free press is important to democracy.” We know that’s true, and obviously it’s appropriate to make that clear to users, but how does one do that in such a way that the user sees the value to themselves?

Do you think that could be an area in which publishers cooperate? In general, consumer brands compete heavily in selling their products – but do you think that in the news industry, we should work together to try to get those non-readers on board?

Obviously there’s both competition and cooperation. I think it depends. The news business is complex. There are various markets, various tiers, big differences between national publications, local publications, regional publications, publications focused on a specific area of content. I think it would obviously be beneficial if there were more collaboration and cooperation, at the same time understanding that in some of these areas there’s keen competition.

But one thing I think we’re beginning to see more of is, is there bundling of, for instance, a national publication along with a very local publication? That’s, I think, where cooperation and collaboration makes sense. Less about a national publication competing with another national publication, where I don’t think we’re going to see much cooperation and collaboration.

Let’s turn for a moment to the tricky topic of trust, which raised its head again during the recent elections in France. Could you update us on what Google is doing in this area?

I think it’s an area of crucial importance. I think there are many in the industry who’ve recognized that. That shouldn’t be news to us, right? We’ve seen these problems for a long time. We’ve seen the decline in trust in the press for a long time. It didn’t start with the internet, but obviously the internet didn’t make it any better. I think that’s absolutely crucial. It gets back to, “Is anyone going to bother to consume my content – much less pay for it – if they don’t trust it, if they don’t value it?”

There are several efforts that we have undertaken in various dimensions of the problem. One is that we are involved in and have helped support an industry effort called the Trust Project, which is looking deeply into those questions of how do people form a sense of affinity to a brand, of looking at different models of greater appropriate transparency, about how the work of a news organization is done, about the people behind that organization. The Trust Project, I think, is an enormously important part of that. That is a collaborative effort of the news industry, so it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. I think they’re making some good progress.

There are some other areas. FactCheck, for instance, is an example of what I also call “new models for journalism.” I think independent third-party fact checks of the claims of politicians or websites, or whatever, are a very useful component. We’ve done a lot to help spearhead that.

We’ve been working with the fact-checking community for more than two years to both help drive its evolution and come up with the technical architecture to allow fact checks to be more easily found and surfaced in experiences like Google News, in experiences like Google Search.
– Richard Gingras, Google Vice President, News

I think it’s a very powerful model. We recently launched support for fact checks around the world in Google Search.

I think what’s important to consider here is that this isn’t just about news items or public policy items, or the statements of a politician. It’s as important in other areas of content as well: health and medicine, for instance, where there are always spurious claims about magical remedies which people can find on the internet. We think it’s important to create a means where independent third-party fact checkers can help enlighten people’s understanding of what they’re seeing in search results, because that material is there. How do we help users develop their own understanding, and hopefully form a more informed conclusion about what they do or not do?

So Google is collaborating with third-party organizations. But don’t you have some ‘magic’ technology in development that will help us cope with the overwhelming phenomenon of fake news?

Obviously fake news is an issue that has to be addressed and is an area that we have spent a lot of focus on. I would note that this is not a new problem. This has been around – well, propaganda has been around – since the history of communications.

But the scale has become so immense that you would think it requires a massive approach, some sort of enormous technology that can help us deal with it. Leading up to the French election, for example, there were literally millions of documents to check.

I don’t know how we assess the scale, but I don’t say that to diminish the fact that there’s a challenge to all of us with regard to how do people get fact-based information, without question. But I think the problem is considerably more complex than many of us might recognize. I think there are areas where Google can and is looking to address it.

But I would also note that there was a very interesting study done by the MIT Media Lab and the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University that looked into news media over the course of 2016 leading up to the U.S. election. Their conclusion was that fake news – in the sense of fake, fake stuff from Macedonian teenagers – did not have a significant impact on the election. What did have an impact was hyper-partisan content from partisan news sites, partisan political sites, you name it, that are not necessarily dealing in total falsehoods, but deal in misrepresentation of fact and context. That plays so well to people who are interested in having their own beliefs and biases confirmed. That’s a big challenge. That, as I said, goes beyond Macedonian teenagers. I think we need to recognize that.

What steps can we take? Yes, we have continued to improve our algorithms to help us detect content that is misrepresentative of fact, or comes from sources that lack authority or validity. We’ve improved our algorithms in that regard. We’ve provided additional feedback mechanisms so users can alert us when they see content that they think is inappropriate. These are important steps, without question.

At the same time, no one wants to see Google as the ultimate determiner of truth, right? Therein lies the challenge.
– Richard Gingras, Google Vice President, News

That’s why, for instance, we took the approach we took with the fact-check community: How do we develop organic solutions to what, in a sense, is an organic challenge? We don’t want Google, we don’t want governments determining what’s true and what’s not. As I think you noticed, the digital vice president of the EU has come out several times and said, “Yes, fake news is a problem, but a ‘Ministry of Truth’ is not the answer.”

On a different subject, we’ve seen widespread adoption of AMP by publishers, so that’s a success. Now it is important that the advertising community adopt the AMP ad technology as well. How is that coming along?

I think we’ve made great progress. I don’t use the term “success,” because obviously our objective here was to, over time and in collaboration with many stakeholders in the ecosystem, re-architect the web for speed and address the difficult challenges in the ads ecosystem. That does not happen overnight, but I think we’ve had tremendous progress. We love the fact that so many publishers have adopted AMP around the world, but there’s a lot more to do. AMP ads, we think, are a really powerful initiative. We’re pleased with the response to that. But it takes time, right?

I’ll give you just a simple example. You might remember, several years ago, the shift away from [Adobe] Flash, for instance, as a mechanism for creating ads. It took a long time to move the advertising creative community to these new modes of creation.

For instance, in developing AMP ads we’re focusing on every dimension of the ecosystem, and one is, we’re now working with companies who develop the dominant authoring tools for ad creation, to bring AMP ads into that environment.
– Richard Gingras, Google Vice President, News

We have to hit it at every point. We have to hit the buy-side community, the sell-side community of publishers, the ad creative community, the ad tech community, third-party ad networks and so on. Very pleased with the progress, and I think it’s hugely important for all of us to continue to engage and to continue to drive that change. As you know, I think the future of the web is at stake. I think AMP and AMP ads are extremely important efforts to help address that.

But true success is only going to be found, as I’ve said from the very beginning, with collaboration across the industry. No one can snap their fingers and change the ecosystem overnight. As I’ve said, it’ll take the leadership of many, not the leadership of one, for us to get there.

What do you think publishers could do to speed up the adoption of AMP ads? It’s in their interest as well.

Yes, it certainly is. Adopting AMP more fully in the first place is a start. AMP, from a technical perspective, has now reached a point of maturity where we’re beginning to see publisher sites use AMP entirely for their mobile sites, and some beyond their mobile sites. The Irish Times, for instance, is using AMP entirely for its mobile site.

We’re working with publishers on using AMP along with progressive web apps to have a much more cost-efficient means of having not only a fast experience, but an experience that provides notifications – all of the things that one might have built a native app for, before. So further publisher adoption of AMP in and of itself is a step.

The beauty of AMP ads, by the way, in helping with this transition is that AMP ads aren’t solely for AMP documents. AMP ads will run on traditional websites. So to the extent that publishers are doing, for instance, direct sales with advertisers or doing native advertising, and in those efforts can continue to push people and advertisers towards AMP ads, I think it is a win for everyone. Our own ad platforms are going aggressively down the path of adopting AMP ads. All of these things will help. But I always caution folks: The mission has not been fully accomplished. A great start, but it’s going to require a continued determined effort on all of our parts to get there.

What is the percentage of AMP adoption among media publishers in the US?

I don’t have that number. As I think you pointed out, we’re now seeing AMP pages coming from over 900,000 domains around the world. The adoption is broad, percentage-wise, in the United States. It’s very high, but I don’t know the exact percentage. Sorry about that.

What are the next steps in the development of Google News?

At Google – and this applies to Google News, it applies to Google Search, it applies to any news consumption experience that we may create – our objective as we go forward, and this has been part of the philosophy of our products and particularly Google News for a long time, is how do we do a better and better job of giving users what I think of as, in a sense, a 360-degree perspective on stories.

Google News, for instance, has often been cited in polls as a highly trusted news source. We don’t create news, but the reason for that perception of trust is people like the fact that on a given story, we give them multiple options. We give them multiple sources. It might be a story that in the United States is primarily reported by The New York Times but it took place in the Middle East. Should we also surface an article from The Jerusalem Post? Should we surface a Wikipedia entry that provides background on the subject? Should we surface opinion pieces from different perspectives?

I think that is a core objective as we go forward.

It’s back to what I said earlier: How do we increasingly, in this divisive world, give people the comprehensive set of tools in information such that they can develop their own critical thinking and hopefully drive them to make informed conclusions and decisions, and do that in an assiduously apolitical way?
– Richard Gingras, Google Vice President, News

I think that, from a news perspective, is the philosophy we want to increasingly focus on.

Does that require combining breaking news and “explainers”?

It’s breaking news. It’s explainers. It’s opinion pieces. It’s backgrounders. It’s data journalism. It’s information from news organizations. But again, these are things that we’ve done in Google News for a long time: “Here’s the breaking news, but maybe you need that background information about Brexit.” Or, “Here’s some data from a data journalism effort that helps with additional data-driven insights on the subject.”

Without going into too much technical detail, is it difficult to add those things?

I think like all of these, you get clear on your philosophical objective and you drive towards it. There are technical challenges that we run into. There are challenges in the ecosystem. One of the things we have been discussing with publishers via the Trust Project and others is, can we have a better understanding of what type of article is it? Is it fact-based reporting, versus an opinion piece, versus a backgrounder, versus a profile or an interview? That will help guide our systems to help give people that complete perspective on a subject, and provide benefit to publishers who are creating that kind of important content, the background information, so on and so forth.

Briefly, about the rumored upcoming ad blocker in the Chrome browser: When will it arrive, and is it really necessary?

First of all, I can’t comment on rumors, but think we need to be careful in how we describe ad blockers and bad advertising in general. It’s really, how do we address ad blocking where people are adopting ad blockers that block all ads? Our objective across our work with the entire ad industry is not specific to ad blockers per se, it’s how do we take and help guide the advertising ecosystem towards behaviors that are both more effective and more respectful to users? Right?

We’ve all had the negative ad experiences: Either the pages don’t render well because everything is getting in the way, or there are popups here and there that people find disturbing and annoying – all of the bad ad behaviors that we know. Our efforts as part of the Better Ads Coalition are really to help guide that. As we’ve found with AMP and AMP ads, if you respect the user you get better results. The CTRs go up, the viewability of the ads goes up. The effective CPMs go up. It’s all towards that objective of, “How do we drive towards better ad behaviors such that the ads that are there are doing their job at driving revenue for publishers who obviously need that revenue?”

(The photos were taken at Digital Media Europe 2016 in Vienna.)

As mentioned above, Gingras will speak on 8 June at the World News Media Congress in Durban, South Africa.

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