Innovation — in newsrooms and elsewhere — takes more than a new idea. It requires transforming that idea into value for the organization, whether that looks like a revamped business model, a new platform to more easily investigate abuses of power, or technology to distribute journalism to new audiences.
A new study investigates reasons that one-year grants supplied by Google News Initiative (GNI) in Africa and the Middle East resulted in a number of projects that fall short of that definition, instead producing “minimum viable products” that were under-realized versions of the original ideas.
There’s no doubt that the Google News Initiative has come as a welcome boost to newsrooms across the globe. After several waves of grants — and despite a lack of transparency around the grant-giving — researchers have started to evaluate their impact. Recent results, published in the open access journal Media and Communication, also shed light on the challenges news outlets in these regions face as they seek financial stability, navigate asymmetrical power dynamics with technology partners, and grapple with the news industry’s longstanding reluctance to embrace innovation.
This group of researchers — Mathias‐Felipe de‐Lima‐Santos (University of Amsterdam), Allen Munoriyarwa (University of Botswana), Adeola Abdulateef Elega (Nile University of Nigeria), and Charis Papaevangelou (University of Toulouse) — focused on newsrooms in Africa and the Middle East, in part because these “overlooked regions” are “where journalists are often in dire need of funding.”
The authors are upfront about the fact that their data-gathering process was “fraught with challenges.” Out of more 43 news organizations in Africa and the Middle East that received grants from Google News Initiative until 2021, they were able to interview 13 in-depth. (Some organizations declined to participate, citing non-disclosure agreements signed with Google. Others were simply unresponsive.) They also analyzed the publicly available project descriptions.
Across all 43 projects funded by GNI in these regions, 42% involved developing a business model. Another 30% of projects sought to bring “emerging technological innovations” to the news organization and 28% focused on audience building using methods like SMS and podcasts.
Here’s what the researchers found:
There are region-specific limitations. Newsrooms in these regions ran into issues “developing these projects in the region due to the lack of knowledgeable IT personnel, high hiring costs, and reliance on third‐party vendors,” the authors conclude. “As a result, most projects ended up being minimum viable products of their original idea.”
Google did not work with the newsrooms to develop the projects — a fact “bemoaned” by all 13 respondents, according to the researchers — and meetings between the tech company and newsrooms were limited to status checks. (Some respondents said even those were outsourced by Google to a third-party company.) The researchers found that those who did have contact with former journalists working at Google had more positive experiences.
At one Lebanon-based digital news organization, finding the right person to hire took more than half of the grant duration, because the project required knowledge of AI, being a native English and Arabic speaker, and having an interest in news media. “You need to tick too many boxes,” an interviewee from the newsroom said. “If they exist, they are already employed and we can’t afford them.”
In several cases, newsrooms outsourced the technological work to companies outside the regions:
“By creating more diverse project teams or involving different stakeholders, some projects brought this inclusiveness approach to their projects. Outsourcing is a tool that helps in this process. However, specific organizations, particularly those with headquarters abroad, ended up developing their projects in other countries outside Africa or the Middle East. For example, Legit.ng (Nigeria) did not have information about the ReCo project, a content recommendation tool, as “it was made overseas,” in its office in Ukraine, according to a representative who did not agree to be interviewed by us. Pulse.ng (Nigeria) is owned by the parent company, Ringier, based in Switzerland. We contacted a representative who also knew nothing about the project. In this aspect, the inclusiveness of these projects reveals to be poor. In some respects, being led and developed by organizations in Western countries, some projects limit their possibilities to contribute to local development and mitigate the low level of technological development in the region.”
The projects were also hampered by the requirement that newsrooms co-fund them alongside Google. The process remains opaque, even to the researchers: “While some mentioned that Google sponsored 70% of the project, others said it was 60% or 80% for them. Given this lack of common standards, it is hard to understand how Google decides on the grant’s value.” Many news organizations in these regions do not have the financial resources to co-finance the projects and even successful grantees reported they would need to raise additional funds (from Google or elsewhere) in order to keep developing the projects. From the study:
“News outlets are not prepared to carry on these projects, putting at risk their continuity and clearly showing that Google did not help these organizations to mitigate the costs of these technological innovations. [One Kenya-based newsroom] clearly stated: “In the end, we realized it would be costly running this project after the grant is over. So, we decided we are going to continue it for a little bit.”
And newsrooms everywhere struggle to embrace transformative change. The researchers draw a distinction between incremental innovation (think: creative tweaks to reporting and production) and radical innovation (such as ones that address the distribution of news shifting to mobile devices — or the internet ushering in a shift from legacy media’s one-to-many informational model to a news ecosystem where many individuals and channels produce information). News media aren’t known to embrace the latter and the reasons include a reluctance to change newsrooms norms and procedures, inability to marshal the resources for major overhauls, and fear that layoffs or cutbacks will follow radical change.
Innovation was influenced by tech company priorities and assumptions. Some interviewees noted receiving GNI grants validated their hope that these innovations — conceived with Google funding in mind — would be helpful to their organizations in the future. This, the researchers argue, leads to a situation where “tech companies set the terms and conditions” for innovation.
Worryingly, the study’s authors argue that these GNI grants can hamstring the infrastructural autonomy and innovation capacity of news organizations by leading newsrooms to “adapt incessantly” to the needs of tech companies like Google. (“Google seems to frame journalistic innovation as achievable only through its proprietary and technological capacities,” the study authors note.)
“By giving this one‐year grant, Google expects news organizations to solve their long financial sustainability problem and adopt technological innovation that will disrupt their business models and put them on the path to sustainability,” they continue. Instead, “philanthropic routines lead news organizations, notably smaller and independent ones, to concentrate almost exclusively on funds provided by these institutions to sustain their business.”
Sarah Scire is the deputy editor of Nieman Lab. Previously, she worked at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and The New York Times.