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Ludovic Blecher
Interview  | 

Google DNI Fund: “It is all about conversations with publishers”

The Google Digital News Innovation Fund - DNI Fund for short - has been supporting forward-looking projects in the news industry over a number of years. The DNI Fund will soon come to a conclusion. That's where the questions come in: What has the funding initiative achieved so far? What did we learn about the innovation process within publishing houses? And to what extent is Google's commitment to innovative journalism continuing? We spoke to Ludovic Blecher, Head of DNI Innovation Fund for News & Publishers, whose colleague Sarah Hartley will soon be presenting a panel at the IFRA & DCX conferences in Berlin.

Ludovic, in 2015, the DNI Fund started with a total of 150 million Euros for innovation projects of European publishers. Why does Google support quality journalism?

We have always collaborated with publishers and we take our role in the news ecosystem seriously. In the past, there had sometimes been a kind of misunderstanding between Google and the publisher, due to different cultures (media vs technology) and a lack of conversation. When you sit down together at the same table, you engage in conversation, you understand each other better. We started with a group of partners - Les Echos, FAZ, The Financial Times, The Guardian, NRC Media, El Pais, La Stampa and Die Zeit - So DNI was created as a framework for dialogue within the news ecosystem.

What exactly is this framework about?

It is influenced by three pillars. One is our own product: we want to develop products that better address the main concerns of publishers. We have collaborated on products such as AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) that helps to improve the loading times of websites on mobile devices or the YouTube player for publishers. This creates free capacity for newsrooms, which they can use to concentrate on content creation, news distribution and storytelling. Such free tools were developed in discussions with publishers from all over Europe.

The second pillar is research and training.  Training is provided by our News Lab team to newsrooms to help journalists use Google tools, e.g. to visualise information or to better understand the trends. Research is simply that we are a main sponsor of the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report that researches the state of digital transformation in the industry.

And the third pillar is innovation – the part I am in charge of. It is really money for projects that demonstrate new thinking in the practice of digital journalism and support the development of new business models. It is all about being open, to stimulate and give an opportunity to test things. With the digital transformation there is no silver bullet anymore and we have to figure out new recipes.

Sometimes DNI is perceived in such a way that it is all about AI and robot journalism. What are actually the focal points of the funded projects?

We funded 559 projects over five rounds of funding for 115 million Euros in 30 European countries. Of course it is not only about robot journalism. It is really about the most important issues that news publishers are facing today on local, quality, trust, sustainability and monetisation. Innovation is sometimes about technology and sometimes not. We have projects about misleading information, local news or technology such as automation and blockchain. It is about how you use technology to save costs, how you use data to help publishers to make better choices and to give journalists more room and time for their work in the newsroom. And DNI Fund is also about great collaborative efforts. Almost half of the large projects in round 3, 4 and 5 were collaborative efforts, where publishers were working together with start-ups, academies or other publishers.

Could you give an example for such a collaborative project?

For the Nonio project in Portugal many publisher there came together to create a data management platform with Single sign-On, a kind of one-time login system. It provides first-party data to the common database. Nonio is therefore a cooperative project in which publishers want to create an innovative system that facilitates the profiling of digital target groups for advertising and content.

What requirements must the projects meet in order to receive funding?

First it is always about diversity. We want diversity of applicants, so the funding is as open as possible. Nearly everyone who is linked to the news ecosystem can apply for funding. On the one hand, we have a large, up to one million Euros funding open to companies with at least one journalist on board. On the other hand, we even have a prototype track where individuals can apply. We received an average of more than 800 applications for each round. It is worth applying even when you don't have a magic approach. It’s all about innovation but we also have some focus for specific rounds around monetisation or diversification of news streams.

How does the decision-making and selection process work?

In terms of governance we have two bodies. The project team is responsible for reviewing the projects, interviewing and pre-selecting the applicants. And the council is responsible for meeting the objectives of DNI. Both bodies are a mix of Googlers and representatives of the industry. Each application is seen and assessed by at least three persons, at least one internal and one external. The process is transparent and documented: We have diversity of rules based on public criteria.

For us, innovation is clearly not modernization, but we don't define it exactly. It might be the use of technology or not, it might be the team consistency and dependent on the metrics that are used or the benefits that it brings to the ecosystem. So we want the applicant to explain to us, why their project is  innovative. Is your project open source or does it have a collaborative approach? Are you just open to new experiments and to test new things? Is your approach inspiring for other publishers? Those are the questions and criteria of assessment. So we create a short list of projects and then a long shortlist of people we engage with. We do interviews that scale and at the end of the day we go to the council and they select.

So you have a really good overview of the innovation process within publishing houses. How do you rate their innovative power?

I am surprised to see what is currently happening in publishing houses in terms of innovation and innovative processes. The will is there in any case, but not always the margin. Innovation needs the opportunity to experiment. And above all, innovation takes time. Publishers often focus only for a short time on innovation, research and development. But a good idea is not everything. The execution is also important. They have to learn from user feedback, keep restarting and adapting things.

What advice would you give publishers on how to improve their innovation projects?

For good innovations you should be able to explain the idea to a person like your grandmother who doesn’t know anything about digital and is just a user. Sometimes, few publishers tend to set out from their frustration and what they want to achieve but not from the consumer needs or the user habits. It’s very interesting to see how this is still after five rounds the biggest difficulty for some publishers to put themselves in the position of the user.

Internal contests can help to improve this. Johnston Press do this for example: From 10 ideas they kill 5. They keep two ideas that they will do on their own and send two or three to the DNI fund. So this works like an incubator for them. I have been in the publisher’s shoes for some time as Editor in Chief. It is really difficult to step back, work on your vision, take the time to breathe and think in different ways. That’s a value that brings the application process to the ecosystem, even more than the funding itself. There is an opportunity for everyone at different level and scale.

Have selected projects already failed or been stopped and what were the reasons for this?

Innovation works with failure. Failure doesn't necessarily mean stopping – most of the time it's learning. The ways we approach the funding leaves room and flexibility for iteration and changes. Imagine you want to do feature ABC, but along the way you realise that it is better to do AD and D+. We are in discussion with the project teams and we allow all these kind of changes. Of course not all projects will be successful, but we had very few, like four or five, that really stopped or were withdrawn. Sometimes companies are collapsing, they are changing management and strategy and it’s co-funding. This is simply how the life of an ecosystem works.

In Berlin, your colleague Sarah Hartley will present two DNI projects together with Philipp Schwörbel from krautreporter.de and Leo Xavier from observador.pt. What exactly do they do?

Leo Xavier is also the founder of Frames. The project is about some kind of dynamic data charts that can be embedded in any article. The interesting thing is that this product can now also be used in the editorial departments of competing companies with the help of automation and scaling effects. Publishers can also diversify revenues by providing this type of software licensing. It is underlining the importance of sharing technology and knowledge within the industry.

Steady is anotherproject that shows how online publishers are moving to diversification and software approaches. Philipp, who founded the platform, has experienced with his online magazine krautreporter how difficult it is to make a living from it. His experience has been incorporated into the small start-up that is providing journalists with the technology and marketing tools they need to build a membership base and generate revenue. More than 200 journalists, YouTubers and Bloggers already use the platform and there are more than 26k readers that registered from the launch.

The total funding support of DNI so far is 115.2 million Euros. What will happen, when you reach the 150 million?

The projects will go on, because it takes up to three years to put them into practice. The DNI Fund itself will expire with the 150 million Euros. But of course we will have other programmes and initiatives to support the ecosystems with innovation. Actually, the DNI brand disappeared six months ago. In March 2018, we launched a global initiative, called GNI, the Google News Initiative, a global effort to work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age which has been inspired by DNI. We want to emphasise that we are committed to news publishers worldwide for the long haul.

The relationship between the news media – at least their stakeholders – and Google is not necessarily the best. For example, the German news publisher associations recently welcomed the EU Commission's decision against Google and pressed for an EU-wide Copyright Directive that would force platforms like Google to pay for linking to news. Did the DNI initiative better this relationship or what did you achieve in this aspect?

DNI Fund is not about our products. It's about publisher’s projects, they own the IP. We are not investing, we are donating. So it is really stimulation. Many publishers say publicly how these kinds of projects led them to think in a different way and to implement innovation in different ways. They say that for them it has been very helpful. We start really seeing the impact of DNI with new labs of innovation, small new start-ups that get other funding afterwards. Big players change the way they are managing their project by breaking the silos in newsrooms. For us it is all about conversations with publishers. Of course you can disagree on things but at least we discuss it and have a framework to work together and try to figure out common solutions.

The interview was conducted by Stefanie Hornung

Don't miss the panel on this topic at the DCX Conference:
“Google Digital News Innovation Projects”

  • Sarah Hartley, Recipients Manager, Google DNI Fund
  • Philipp Schwörbel, Founder & Co-CEO, krautreporter.de: Steady, Publishers & the Membership Revolution
  • Leo Xavier, Founder, observador.pt: Frames: a use case of automation across newsrooms

Wednesday, 10 Oktober 2018, 12.30 – 2 pm, Messe Berlin

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