Google Coronavirus

Advertising is drying up for newsrooms of all sizes amid the coronavirus pandemic, but local newsrooms are especially hard hit, so Google is earmarking some funding aimed at stemming the flow of closures and layoffs at small media operations.

The search giant — which makes most of its own revenue on advertising and is frequently pointed to, rightly or not, as the cause of many a media outlet’s financial problems — has selected about 5,000 smaller newsrooms to benefit from its new Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. Part of the Google News Initiative started two years ago, JERF was essentially a quick pivot of that team in an effort to help smaller local news operations severely impacted by the coronavirus’ economic effects. At least 116 U.S. newsrooms, many of them local, have enacted layoffs, pay cuts or closed outright due to the pandemic, according to a running tally by Poynter. That outlet also estimates that 36,000 reporters, journalists and editorial workers have lost jobs due to the pandemic.

Chrissy Towle, Google’s head of news and local media, said she and the team of about 300 she worked with on the fund and the sorting of applications were “very surprised” by how many submissions they received — 12,165 in a two-week period.

“The big takeaway was seeing just how drastically advertising revenue has declined since the pandemic hit,” Towle said. “It’s devastating and the majority of local news in the U.S. do not have a subscription model, they rely solely on advertising. The irony is the demand for local news is skyrocketing.”

Google’s JERF is now starting to deliver funds to smaller news operations in the U.S., Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, among other regions, in a total of 103 countries. Grants range between $5,000 and $30,000. A Google spokeswoman said a final tally of the funds being given was not complete, as the process is not yet finished, but said the amount will be “in the tens of millions” of dollars. If the average grant is just $10,000, the amount being given away to the 5,000 newsrooms selected would be $50 million. At the start of April, Google also gave $6.5 million to a number of fact-checking groups. While a small fraction of the $34 million in profits Google pulled in last year, the money is still going directly to local news operations that need it.

Another surprise for Towle was just how many small news operations there are currently functioning, even if only on a shoestring budget.

“The entire process, while devastating, definitely gave us hope,” Towle added. “Going into this we thought we had an idea of who would apply, but so many of these news organizations that applied we’d never heard of. Where we thought there was a news desert and there was someone there.”

Towle said e-mails to those selected to receive money started going out last week and the response has been “90 percent positive.” This being Google, there will be some complaining, and a couple of those selected decided not to take the money. One declined because it ended up not being needed. But in general, Towle admitted that it felt good to be able to do something, along with giving major news publishers a recent break on ad fees, that was also helpful to the news industry.

“The relationship we have with these news organizations is sometimes strained and a lot of them blame Google and the Internet for their troubles, so to be able to provide something like this is great,” Towle said. 

Some of the U.S. newsrooms selected to receive funding are The Daily Memphian in Tennessee; Chestnut Hill Local in Pennsylvania; Madison365 in Wisconsin, and WTIP North Shore Community Radio in Minnesota. In Europe, fact-checking site Mediacités in France; L’Eco di Bergamo in Italy, and Rochdale Online in the U.K. all received funding. In Africa, Baraka FM, a Kenyan radio station, received funding. In Japan, Saitama Shimbun received funding, as did The Murray Pioneer in Australia, the Jakarta Globe in Indonesia and East Mojo in India. All of the outlets intend to use the funds from Google to stem a loss in advertising and continue to pay reporters to cover local issues and those related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

While Google did not disclose how much each outlet received, the amount was generally based on size. All newsrooms who accept the JERF money had to sign a contract ensuring that they use it in order to continue local reporting and news efforts.

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