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Google News Lab’s Steve Grove highlights importance of local reporting

Grove’s comments were part of Medill’s Local News Summit in partnership with three newspapers

June 20, 2018 | By Erin Chan Ding (BSJ03)
Google News Lab's Steve Grove speaks on stage at Medill about local news
Director of Google News Lab Steve Grove speaks on stage with Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin

The future of local news could mean a home assistant conversing with a consumer as if a reporter was in the room, explaining an important story.

It could mean immersive experiences with narration and virtual reality.

It could mean letting news organizations know exactly when a reader on a website is hooked enough to become a digital subscriber. 

However news is packaged and delivered, Steve Grove, the director of the Google News Lab, said Google is committed to investing in and supporting local journalism.

During a keynote address at the at Northwestern University’s first Local News Summit called “Google & the Future of News,” Grove told more than 60 Summit attendees, plus dozens of students and community members, that Google will collaborate with news organizations all over America and the globe, including with a $300 million Google News Initiative launched earlier this year.

At a basic level, Grove said he’s optimistic about local news because of the demand for it. One-third of all mobile searches on Google, he said, have a local intent, and the supply to quench the demand for community and regional news will meet the demand, even if the delivery methods take different forms than they have in the past.

The Local News Summit, hosted in June by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, convened editors, educators and thought leaders from all over the country to strategize around readership, technology and sustainable business models for local news organizations.

The Summit is part of a Local News Initiative led by Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Medill, and supported by a $300,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. and private donors. The Indianapolis Foundation will also contribute a $40,000 grant toward the initiative.

As part of the Local News Initiative, launched this spring, staff from three local news organizations—the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and The Indianapolis Star—have partnered with Northwestern to act as “learning labs.” The Medill IMC Spiegel Research Center will analyze data concerning reader engagement at the three news organizations, and the Northwestern Knight Lab will interview residents and research news consumption data in the three local news markets.

All the research, results, successes and setbacks resulting from the two-year project will be chronicled by Medill so media organizations everywhere can glean insights.

In a conversation with Franklin during the keynote, Grove said the goal of the Google News Initiative is to strengthen quality journalism, support sustainable business models and empower newsrooms through technological innovation.

“Google’s business depends on great information existing for people to find,” Grove said, speaking at the McCormick Foundation Center Forum at Northwestern’s Evanston campus. “We’re a search company, and if you’re looking for great information on the web, there’s no better quality information on the web than journalism.

“We felt like both for moral reasons and also business reasons, we needed to do more. So the Google News Initiative is sort of us doubling down and saying, ‘Look, journalism can’t fail. Publishing must survive.’ We need to do more to help it survive, and we need to do more in collaboration with news organizations to get this right.”

Franklin questioned Grove, however, on whether the Google News Initiative is a matter of “too little, too late,” as critics have pointed to the pervasiveness of news made available by sites like Google as having contributed to a decline in local news readership.

In mid-June, the Pew Research Center updated its Newspapers Fact Sheet, reporting that total U.S. daily newspaper circulation for both print and digital fell 11 percent for weekdays to 31 million and 10 percent for Sunday to 34 million in the past year.

Grove acknowledged Google has experienced “a rise in our growth the same time the news industry has struggled,” but said the reasons aren’t related in ways people commonly think, such as a Google-Facebook duopoly.

“I mean, the competitive landscape in advertising and Internet today is fierce,” he says, pointing to revenue possibilities from each new startup. He also defended Google as a “go-away site” that points people to sites of publishers, adding, “Is the Google News Initiative too late or not enough? I guess I’ll let critics sort of answer that themselves. We always want to do more, but I will say this: I’ve been at Google for 11 years, and I’ve worked at YouTube and worked for Google Plus and then started news lab four years ago, and I’ve never seen a moment where Google is more concerned about news and cares more about it at the highest levels of the company.” 

Grove, who also worked as a journalist for the Northfield News in his hometown in Minnesota, The Boston Globe and ABC News before joining Google, said “looking at it through a certain lens, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist.”

Grove discussed ongoing technological innovations, such a partnership between Google and The Guardian that gave readers a six-minute, virtual reality experience in a solitary confinement prison cell, complete with audio from people who have gone through the experience and solitary confinement statistics.

“An approach like that,” he said, “is really powerful.”

Grove also pointed to the “less sexy” parts of technological innovation encompassing products and tools that make journalists’ jobs easier, such as artificial intelligence that helps transcribe reporters’ recordings.

“Anyone who’s done that in this room knows it’s one of the most arduous tasks of being a journalist,” he said, eliciting knowing chuckles.

Grove also talked about how Google has worked with Hearst Newspapers to use natural language processing applications to put meta-data tags on stories online so they don’t have to be done manually. He said potential for a more robust news delivery via voice activation—or even for having a news conversation with a digital assistant in a way you could with a reporter—in a seamless way can help consumers feel more connected to stories.

Google is also using machine learning to figure out the exact moment a news user on a site is most likely to desire or decline a subscription.

“Our perspective is the more people that are paying for news, the better,” Grove said. “We want to make that as easy as we possibly we can.”

Earlier in the day, the Local News Summit featured breakout sessions with each of the three learning lab partners and others focusing on audience and community engagement. Ken Doctor, president of Newsonomics, spoke about news organizations getting smarter and stronger, and Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, said news organizations have to follow the technology, follow the customer and follow the money.

The work of community journalism in telling people what’s important, encouraging regional economic growth and development and building social cohesion is too important to let fail.

“I would argue that the mission (of community journalism) in the 20th century is just as relevant in the 21st,” she said. “That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we care whether we survive or not.”

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