Google aims to transform European newsrooms

A €150 million fund will help publishers experiment with new forms of digital media

Google will give €150 million (US$163 million) to European publishers and digital journalism startups in the next three years as part of a wider package that aims to support the news sector.

The Internet giant has had a difficult relationship with publishers in many countries in Europe over using snippets for its news indexing, but having eight top publishers joining its initiative may soften up other publishers to also do a deal.

The move also comes just weeks after the European Commission charged Google with abusing its dominant position in Internet search services in Europe and started an antitrust probe into Android over app bundling practices.

The money will be used to make grants available to projects which demonstrate new thinking in digital journalism, said Carlo D'Asaro Biondo, Google's president of strategic partnerships in Europe, in a speech posted on one of the company's blogs. Publishers and editors have the desire to experiment more freely with digital initiatives but cannot always take the financial risk, he said. Anyone working on innovation in online news in Europe can apply, Biondo said.

The move is part of a deal between Google and eight of Europe's biggest news publishers who together launched the Digital News Initiative on Tuesday. Among the backers are U.K. publishers the Financial Times and the Guardian, German publishers Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and French publisher Les Echos.

Notably missing from the list though are Germany's Axel Springer as well as the publications of News Corp, which runs several U.K. newspapers including The Sun and The Times. Other media companies are welcome to join the initiative, D'Asaro Biondo said.

An Axel Springer spokeswoman said the company is still assessing if joining is an option. Neither The Sun nor The Times responded immediately to a request for comment.

Google's fund is similar to a €60 million fund set up to settle a dispute with French publishers in 2013 over lost revenue, and to prevent a proposed "link tax" that would make Google pay to republish news snippets.

Similar issues with Google's news indexing were raised in Belgium, Germany and Spain for example. In Spain, Google News was shut down last year ahead of a new law that allows publications to charge services like Google News for showing small news snippets.

In Germany, a similar but less strict law was introduced giving publishers the exclusive right to the use of their content except in the case of single words or very small text snippets. German publishers have unsuccessfully tried to use that law to get paid by Google, and grudgingly allowed the company to republish news snippets to avoid further traffic and revenue loss. The dispute is, however, ongoing.

"As a founder partner, we recognize this initiative will be seen as a hand-out to some, but we sense there is something quite fundamental to play for," said Tony Danker, International Director of Guardian News & Media in an article on the paper's website. Google shows it is committing to look again at traffic, engagement and revenue for news, he added.

However, this initiative won't head off the Commission's antitrust probe, nor should it, said Danker, adding that there are clearly legitimate questions about dominance that Google will need to answer.

Besides giving €150 million to new media initiatives, Google said it will hire staff based in Paris, Hamburg and London to work with newsrooms on digital skills. Together with publishers, Google will also set up a working group focusing on ads, video, apps, data insights, paid-for journalism and Google News to increase revenue, traffic and audience engagement.

Google will also fund research into the changing media landscape, focusing on news consumption and user behavior across Europe, as well as research into computer-assisted reporting and crowdsourcing information.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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