Over more than a decade, Google and foundations run by its leaders have given hundreds of millions of dollars to journalists and news organizations around the world, sponsoring drones in Nigeria and Kenya, and local news in the US. But according to a new report, these grants tend to be made in places where the company faces pressure from politicians, the public, and the press, raising questions about whether the tech giant is committed to social good or buying itself goodwill.
The report, written by researchers at the Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project, shows a spike in funding in Europe when Google was under pressure in the mid- to late-2010s, and a subsequent uptick in the US amid a backlash that’s led to a Department of Justice investigation and calls for its breakup.
The advocacy organization counts Oracle, a Google competitor, and other sources it declined to name among its funders.
“Google often boasts about its support for journalism, disclosing plans to spend over half a billion dollars on media initiatives since 2013. But Google isn’t always transparent about its spending, making it difficult to assess what the company is giving — and what it may be getting in return,” the report said.
A Google spokesperson did not dispute the overall trend, although they denied a relationship between the increases in spending and any backlashes. The spokesperson did tell BuzzFeed News that it was ironic for the Google Transparency Project, an opaque organization about its funding, to call for Google to be more transparent.
“Who apart from our rival Oracle is funding these misleading attacks?” said the spokesperson. "Like much of the work this group has done in the past, this report is based on partial information and flawed methodology. Our criteria for awarding grants or funding is based on the merits of any project and the impact it will have on the news industry and ecosystem — not on politics. Over the years, we’ve funded hundreds of organizations and projects around the world that span important work like improving media literacy in the US, boosting digital innovation across the APAC region, and supporting fact-check initiatives and the future of news in online video.”
The Google Transparency Project found at least $567 million committed by Google and related entities such as its executives’ personal foundations to 1,157 media projects across the globe. More than 20% of these grants went to news organizations in France and Germany, where publishers have been particularly critical of the company’s influence.
When European news outlets were, for instance, lashing out at Google in the early 2010s as it used snippets of their stories in Google News without pay, the company committed €60 million to help French publishers make the transition to online news.
Then, as the European Union threatened to tax Google for displaying copyrighted material, the company announced it would invest €150 million in training, product development, and grants via a partnership with European publishers called the Digital News Initiative.
Since 2017, Google has increased its grants in the United States, where it’s been facing a backlash along with its fellow tech giants, especially in regard to its role in the spread of misinformation. In 2018, the company announced a new effort, called the Google News Initiative, that would commit $300 million toward promoting quality journalism and business models to help news organizations become sustainable. The initiative, global in scope, was announced in New York. (The Google News Initiative has funded BuzzFeed News projects.)
“It’s not clear what they’re trying to do with this money apart from creating a feeling among journalists that Google is somehow good for journalism, and an impression that they’re actually trying to do good in the market,” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, told BuzzFeed News.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has tripled its profits compared to last year. Newsroom employees at newspapers in the United States, meanwhile, dropped by 47% between 2008 and 2018, according to Pew. Advertising makes up approximately 85% of Alphabet's revenue and is a critical source of revenue for news publishers.
Although news publishers could use Google’s money to make up for their revenue shortfalls, Bell said the company’s cash must come along with the appropriate infrastructure. A centralized and transparent accounting of where exactly the money’s going would be helpful, for instance. “You might look at Google and say, one of the things you could be doing is actually creating transparency and accountability around this, which is, where is the money going? How much are you giving people? Is it actually working? What can we learn from it?” she said.