Google has been in the innovation grant game for nearly eight years. While others practice a long-term go-big-or-go-home strategy, Google’s philanthropy has taken the opposite course.
At first, the program was funded by large, multi-year grants, Ludovic Blecher, who leads the Google Innovation Challenges from Paris, told me. “But we decided that maybe it wasn’t that. …something funded for a year that could then be scaled up … gets to both vision and execution … (and) leads to truly iterative projects.
Google has also learned to seek ideas that are both collaborative and replicable, Blecher said, so there’s an industry impact, not just a lift for the recipient. And he concluded that simply filling out an application, even if it’s unfunded, can expand the thinking of news outlets stuck in the daily grind.
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A favorite among the 260 projects, Blecher said — funded to a total of $33 million so far, and which models all of these principles — is Crosstown LA at USC Annenberg. He created a family of 110 hyperlocal newsletters, pulled from a shared dataset, sliced and diced by neighborhood and supplemented with overview reports.
Gabriel Kahn, professor of practical journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, explained the project to me as simple in concept but complex in the technology that supports the reporting. Kahn said that by continually focusing on local news business models, he became aware that various agencies in metropolitan Los Angeles were collecting a ton of data — not only on crime, but also on other things. issues such as traffic.
Overall, data was an underutilized reporting resource. Moreover, it could be sorted geographically. It was a source of information that had not even been explored.
It pilots neighborhood newscasts with a grant from the Annenberg Foundation (separate from the school) in 2018. The Google News Initiative’s Innovation Challenge was a second round of funding three more years later, providing a $279,000 grant that made possible a technology set-up and a reporting staff of 13 (including nine students).
“The more local the data, the more relevant it will be to readers,” Khan said. “It gives them information that no one else has. Aggregated data can also spark stories — for example, a startling discovery that car thefts were on the rise for both years of the pandemic.
A typical newsletter might include a brief overview of the number and then very specific data points, describing whether the problem was getting better or worse and where a given neighborhood stood. This one on graffiti is an example.
The format was clearly adaptable to other cities, and a third phase expanded to NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, and WRAL-TV in Raleigh. It’s proven useful for dozens of stories on topics as diverse as untimely trash pickup, potholes, short-term rentals, and dog bites.
A third expansion is in the works with The San Francisco Standard, a venture capital-backed digital startup.
In Los Angeles, Kahn sees marketing the free newsletters to potential subscribers — so far numbering just 3,000 — as unfinished business. But with a clear appeal to neighborhood activists, the newsletters have an open rate through the roof of 80%.
The innovation challenge is part of the larger Google News initiative — not a small part either, accounting for about 10% of a $300 million commitment.
Blecher and his team organize the work, which is international in scope, with periodic calls for proposals, sometimes tailored to regions or thematic in content. The newest of the 10 so far, launched this summer, is a News Equity Fund, targeting underrepresented communities.
As you might expect, there is a wide range of projects. One is a membership program for The Minute News, a digital South Indian news site that appeals to both residents and those in a relocating diaspora. Another helped The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, launch two paid newsletters. Google now offers a similar suite of free tools for any publication looking to launch newsletters.
Some projects rely on Google technology, but that’s not a requirement, Blecher said. No matter how developed a market opportunity is, they own it outright.
How an American company with many American grant recipients came to base its Innovation Challenge in Paris is a story in itself.
Barely 30 years old, Blecher became the digital editor of the left. Liberation (co-founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1943). During a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 2012-2013, Blecher said he “knelt to his knees developing an innovation toolkit for small and medium-sized publishers.”
Google was under intense regulatory pressure from the European Union in 2015, so blecher was a partner in launching a program that would help publishers become more entrepreneurial.
It was in these early years that Blecher decided that large, multi-year grants unintentionally postponed the creative calculus of how to continue once funding ran out.
Google decided in 2018 to expand what Blecher had developed globally and support it.
Even a favorite program like Crosstown LA is expiring and needs to find other funding. Its expansions to the other three cities are funded through a Meta/Facebook partnership with the Local Media Association.
An inevitable question about the philanthropy of the two platform giants is whether it aims to create goodwill with the otherwise hostile publishing community. (Poynter receives support from both, particularly for his fact-checking initiatives.) This is a timely matter as a legislative push to force platform companies to negotiate payment for content is being considered by the Senate committee this week.
My personal opinion: Grant programs have a goodwill agenda, but the scope of the content payment debate is much larger and likely to be rather stifled by lobbyists and legal advisers.