Google gives APAC news organisations $3.2 million to stem media decline

Under the aegis of the Google News Initiative Asia-Pacific Innovation Challenge, Google will support 23 projects by media organisations across 14 countries in the region with a total investment of US $3.2 million.

Announced in November last year, GNI aimed to strengthen digital innovation and business models for news organisations across the region.

The move comes after Google has faced accusations of hurting the traditional business model of media owners, with allegations that the firm takes the content of publishers for free while at the same time having – along with Facebook – taken much of the global ad dollar spend.

According to marketing intelligence service WARC, of the $590.4 billion spent on advertising worldwide last year, $144.6 billion (24.5%), went to the Google and Facebook ‘duopoly’. WARC predicted a further increase in this figure to $176.4 billion (28.6%) this year, which meant the duopoly would receive a little over one in every four dollars of adspend.

Figures from the advertising expenditure forecast issued earlier this week by media agency Zenith painted a grim picture for traditional print advertising. Zenith expected magazine adspend to shrink by US$5.0 billion between 2018 and 2021, and newspaper adspend to shrink by US$6.3 billion.

The report said: “There is no end to either decline in sight. Between 2013 and 2018, their combined share of global adspend fell from 24% to 13%, and we expect this share to fall further to 9% by 2021.”

The classifieds model for publishers was also consigned to history once the search engine became dominant.

Despite all of that, the first of the GNI challenges centred around increasing reader revenue, which Google described as “a critical component of financial stability for news media”.

News organisations of various sizes were encouraged to submit project proposals to Google. After a rigorous round of judging and interviews, 23 were picked from a total of 215 applicants.

The organisations in the fray ranged from established media companies like Singapore Press Holdings from Singapore and the Asahi Shimbun Company from Japan to start-ups like The Record, a digital native publication from Nepal which began operations in 2014. The firms that won stood to receive up to $300,000 in funding that could cover up to 70% of the project cost.

The winning projects were evaluated against four criteria: Impact on the news ecosystem, innovation, feasibility and inspiration. 

The projects that met these criteria included Singapore’s largest circulated Chinese language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, which planned a membership model whereby guest readers could accrue points via gamified non-monetary actions.

These points could be exchanged for premium content or even gifts. The goal was to build engagement and convert guests into loyal readers and eventually subscribers. 

In Malaysia, R.Age – a youth news and lifestyle platform of the Star media group from Malaysia – was planning a membership and micropayment platform for investigative journalists to fund in-depth, cause-driven reporting.

Malaysiakini’s subscription model would incorporate community rewards and recognition, a loyalty programme and an e-wallet system that encouraged its readers to up their levels of engagement with the paper.

Japan’s Iwate Nippo, which focused purely on the Iwate region, intended to create an app and other services for its aging readership. The Asahi Shimbun Company would focus on tipping and donations as new means of reader revenue. Readers who relate to a story will be able to tip or donate to the interviewed community or journalist. The paper intends harnessing blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to lower the cost of each transaction.

Nepal’s The Record was said to be building the country’s first member-supported publication. Its content management system will support smart recommendations and it will incorporate a better comment section to help community building.

Speaking about the proposals that received funding, Google’s APAC head of news partnerships Kate Beddoe said: “Several themes emerged. These included building or renovating membership models, leveraging machine learning and AI to surface more engaging content and gamification to create community-wide sharing.”

Explaining each of these in greater detail she said: “For start-ups, this could mean mean building a membership model. For established players, this can include creating group subscriptions, more responsive platforms and better targeted newsletters.”

For instance, Australian independent news organisation Crikey was said to have more than 90% of its total revenue coming from individual subscribers. With funding from Google, it plans to build a new subscription offering that can be tailored to organisations, businesses and groups of all sizes.

When it came to leveraging AI and machine learning, Beddoe said: “CommonWealth Magazine, a Taiwanese news organisation, built a paywall in 2017 and enjoyed early success.

“It will now make this model more dynamic, leveraging AI and machine learning to develop personalised content, including a customised newsletter, to increase and improve reader engagement.”

She cited Asahi Shimbun’s tipping strategy as a good example of gamification and said: “Tips are a common way of expressing gratitude or affection, so why not extend this to the world of journalism? They will be issuing points to subscribers in order for them to “tip” stories and help expand the market to non-subscribers so that they can do the same.”

A second funding round of the APAC GNI Innovation Challenge will be held later this year. It will be open to everyone from large news organisations to freelancers.


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