Richard Gingras of Google

It doesn’t take much for Richard Gingras to go deep on a given topic.

The vice president of news at Google, who is professorial in the vein of a modern Albus Dumbledore (he even has a mane of white hair and sports a full, if much shorter, beard), switches between the history of the First Amendment, the evolution of communications and the definition of truth in a few breaths. He is not a surface-level guy and he speaks more in paragraphs than in sentences.

That’s not to say Gingras is a bore — he’s affable, obviously curious and isn’t afraid to admit we’re in uncertain times, characteristics that set him apart from a lot of technology executives. But then, he’s not really a tech guy — he’s a second-generation news guy with an affinity for technology.

“What’s truth, you know?” Gingras asks in a conference room somewhere within Google’s sprawling New York headquarters. “Maybe we can settle on this being black and this being white, but truth, in many regards, in any culture, is derived from consensus — we agree on it because we agree on it. Even today, with core scientific facts, people are saying, ‘Well, ya know, we don’t really know about the color spectrum…’ Those damn scientists, what do they know.”

He’s joking — kind of. With a career in media spanning more that 40 years, covering the domination of TV, the advent of cable news and the rise of the computer and the Internet, one gets a sense that Gingras has ridden wave after wave of uncertainty, so a general resignation to the unknown is understandable and probably healthy. He was at PBS earlier on his career and counts Hartford Gunn Jr., the first president of the public network, as a mentor, and went on to found a software company focused on information management called MediaWorks. After that came executive stints at Apple Inc. and the early search engine Excite, owned by IAC, before joining Google in 2011 after a period of semiretirement filled up by myriad board positions.

But there are things Gingras does seem sure of, like the fact that politicians today think “compromise is weakness” and that no one “wants Google in a position to decide what’s acceptable free expression.” When he’s making a particularly salient point, or maybe one he’s made before, he leans back in his chair and wipes his hand across the conference room table, lightly dragging a subtle gold signet ring from Thailand that his father, who long ran the press room at The Providence Journal, gave him decades ago. The effect is belief — one believes this relaxed, thoughtful man with good hair knows what he’s talking about. 

WWD caught up with Gingras on one of his recent trips to New York, which he visits at least once a month, and discussed some big subjects, like truth, regulation of tech and the U.S. Constitution.  

WWD: Your father in law was the late Dalton Trumbo…

Richard Gingras: Yeah. He was a pretty well-known screenwriter, blacklisted in the Fifties — a lesson in the fragility of our constitutional principles.

WWD: Could something like that happen again?

R.G.: I think there’s always that potential and it’s not hard today, in our divisive environment happening, with these tribal pulls — it’s all about the other and the intensity of the rhetoric that one hears today. I want to be cautious of direct comparison to the Fifties, I was literally a child in the Fifties. Though there was this outsized fear of Communism, the level of divisiveness in the culture itself, at least on matters of politics, wasn’t really close to what we have today. It was hidden, too, intense racial issues, inequality — now people are shouting this at each other.

I don’t think anything is off the table and that’s a sad thing to say, but it’s true.

WWD: There are also just so many more people now, too. We’ve tripled and then the Internet gives them a voice…

R.G.: We cannot escape the massive impact of the Internet on our culture, on our times, on our business environments. I remember one time saying 25 years ago, and this isn’t particularly profound, but that the Internet is going to replace our central nervous system.

WWD: Physically?

R.G.: In a sense. It’s how we connect to each other, every way we connect to each other, our societies and cultures. The Internet, the World Wide Web, is now more than a billion web sites. The Internet has created tremendous value, ideas and services, the likes of which we’ve never seen before and there are huge disrupting characteristics of that — disruptions of business, the news industry disruptions, disruptions to public discussion, disruptions to the way institutions perceive and respond to it, so this is all so much more amplified to anything we’ve seen before.

I’m on the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy [a panel focused on the link between democracy and journalism] and we’re in the later-stage process of that work and we’re kind of struggling to understand what’s going on here. It’s interesting to at least posit that the Internet in real-time communications has altered the nature of our representative deliberative democracy.

If you think back 200 years ago when they created it, it was a representative deliberative democracy simply by practicality — I elected a senator in Tennessee or Illinois and they had a four-day horseback ride to Washington and they stayed for six months and letters got sent back and forth by horseback, now and then, and so they had to represent their communities. They were in a social construct, stuck there in Washington in the heat of the swampy summers having to deliberate and find common ground and consensus. That’s largely been lost over the last 20 to 25 years because real-time communication, you know, the whole political construct, has shifted to you’re constantly campaigning to your audience, to your base, to those who are your fiercest supporters.

WWD: So there’s very little incentive for consensus…

R.G.: Right. And in fact, those supporters tend to be very extreme and that’s all ends of the spectrum, to be clear. So as a result there’s no environment or construct for compromise and you hear it, politicians will actually say it, “Compromise is weakness.” Really, compromise is democracy.

WWD: That is profound what you said about the Internet replacing our nervous system — so that’s something happening already?

R.G.: Obviously, it depends how deep one goes with that, but it’s already happened to a significant degree. It has already changed discourse, peoples’ perceptions in a sense, because of all the voices to give people sources of affirmation versus information; it begins to impact how we perceive each other. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in less good ways.

WWD: Do you think that means the Internet has too much power?

R.G.: If you look at it from a free expression standpoint, which I like to do because I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and spend a lot of time thinking about it, the Internet is the First Amendment come to life. It gives everyone that power to express themselves, and not that you have to listen, but anyone has the opportunity to put it out there and the opportunity to listen. So I don’t think it’s a question of too much power, it’s a question of dramatic change that ultimately our culture and institutions need to adapt to and we’re in that process of adaptation. Now that’s long and it doesn’t happen overnight and it can be painful. And there’s often resistance.

Again, generally with communication, we can relish the value, and to the extent we believe in free expression, we have to accept there will, to no small degree, be information that we find uncomfortable.

WWD: I tend to think — I think I first heard Chuck Klosterman say this — but that overall, the Internet is a “net negative.” But it seems like you’d say it’s a “net positive.”

R.G.: I think it comes down to your faith in humanity.

WWD: OK, yeah.

R.G.: If you believe in humanity then you believe that enabling them with new capabilities is a good thing. I think the challenge now is, given the degree of change, we all struggle with how well we can deal with it and certainly in these very confrontational times it’s easy to step back and say, “Whoa, this isn’t what I thought we were getting with this.” But what’s the answer there? Is it to say “No. We want to restrict people’s access and ability to express themselves or find different information.” We could obviously, there are governments that operate that way, but I tend to think that’s not the American bias. The American bias is: how do we move forward? How do we understand the changes and the impacts, positive and negative and wrestle with and push for the evolution of our institutions?

When we talk about the Internet and journalism, I think there is the increasing admission that the news, in all attributes, has to continue to evolve, to find new methods and approaches that suit the times we’re in. Again, people consume information in all different ways from all different sources — they’re actually consuming more than ever before.

…Back to my sense of glass-half-full, I think there are technologies and capabilities available to journalists now, to begin thinking about their craft and what they provide their communities in a different way. How do we give our communities a better sense of what’s a priority and what’s not and therefore, when I go to the polls, I can act accordingly.

WWD: With this whole moment we’re in, “fake news” is just such a dominant term, when two years ago it largely would have been called propaganda. So I’m curious about the semantics of that and why “fake news” seems to have more power to it?

R.G.: Well, I think the reasons for the change in terminology are many. One, I think our understanding of the term propaganda was it was the information being fomented by governmental institutions, political institutions in various countries, whereas with “fake news” it’s clearly coming from all sources. I personally don’t like the term in itself, especially given it has been weaponized and it’s used for anything that I, as a user, don’t like.

Obviously, there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation and in some ways there always has been. You can go back to the earliest days of our republic, and for that matter the role of the press wasn’t seen as we see it now. If you asked [Thomas] Jefferson what his purpose was for the First Amendment, it was to give people the ability to advocate for their interest — it wasn’t about the quote “institution of the press” as we know it now, which is a fine evolution but wasn’t the core thinking. So now we do have it in the broader scope and what is different today is the enabling capabilities that allow folks to marshal armies of disinformation, which is clearly, from Google’s perspective, something we fight hard, hard, hard to address.

I go back to the MIT study that came out after the last election on media in the U.S. for the year prior to the election, and their conclusion was that the problem wasn’t “fake news” [defined as false information from a false source] rather than it being massive amounts of misrepresentations of fact and context from partisan sources, partisan media. And we see that today. We are in the age of more partisan media in the U.S. than we had ever seen in the prior era. Not uncommon in other countries, but it was less common here and clearly now more pronounced.

If we’re going to address these challenges, it’s up to all of us, our various roles in society, to step up and try to address these changes. It is, yes, about the responsibilities of technology players like Google and continuing to step up in a principled way, which is tricky, because I don’t think anyone wants Google in a position of deciding what’s acceptable or unacceptable free expression. But it’s also important that journalists step back and look at what approaches they take in dealing with the challenges and it’s also important for our political class to step up and recognize the dangers of the path we’re going down in terms of more divisive, more confrontational public discourse.

Richard Gingras of Google.  Mark Mann/WWD

WWD: Do you think that’s possible, that those three groups you just mentioned will ever really be able or willing to step up in a meaningful way?

R.G.: I have to hope. The alternative is not pleasant, so I have to believe so. But I’ve realized doing what I do in a global role and dealing with the global news and publisher ecosystem…we as societies will thrive and survive based on the quality of our principled leadership within any of those dynamics, those political constructs. Do we have principled leaders carrying us forward? And I’m cautious to say that, principled leaders, but it’s not hard to see the kind of behavior we’re talking about, getting very tribal, playing to your base, playing to your audience, playing to what’s going to keep people tuned into my cable news network another hour.

WWD: We touched on the First Amendment already, but do you think the Internet-media ecosystem as it exists, with everyone and anyone having such a big platform to say anything, should just continue unabated or should there be some kind of a regulatory effort?

R.G.: I would be foolish, we would be foolish to say regulation does not have its place, but it becomes a question of what? What are we regulating? How are we regulating it? One thing I’ve seen as I’ve traveled the world is that, in a sense, the larger risk of what we talk of as fake news and disinformation, is that the concern about it is often driven by deep emotion, often driven in the political sphere. It might be well-intentioned from some, some less so, but it is causing discussions of regulation that may have deep secondary consequences on regulation itself.

Now, by the way, it’s important to note the U.S. is at the far extreme when it comes to free expression, with having it codified as strongly as we do, so that’s really the last place we want to go. Rather [we could be] saying “How can our institutions evolve to take suit? How can our norms evolve?” Whether it be in the political class, whether it be in the technology sector, whether it be in the area of news. How do we evolve or methods and our principles to accommodate the changes? There’s a lot of good thinking there we haven’t had the time to really play that out and by “we,” I mean all of us.

When it comes to technology companies, here, too, how do we continue to evolve our own work? How do we continue to evolve how we communicate our work so people understand what we do and how we do it, so users understand what they’re seeing and why they’re seeing it? We’re putting increasing focus on just that — “Am I seeing fact-based coverage, or am I seeing opinion?”

When I think of Google search and Google news, the core philosophy I drift back to is how can we give our users the tools to develop their own critical thinking with an array of assiduously broad coverage, to reach their own, hopefully more informed, opinions? How do we help people be smarter? That’s an ongoing effort. My first lean is, how do we fix these things in the right way through our core institutions and be cautious about using regulation that may indeed have secondary consequences and often does have secondary consequences, by nature of the fact that the regulation came out of a political structure. Often it’s very hard to step back and correct things — certainly not quickly.

WWD: So it’s risky?

R.G.: Yeah, it comes up all the time: “Oh, you technology companies, you need to fix the misinformation problem.” And I’m like — don’t get me wrong, this is not to shy away from the responsibility — we continue to evolve, and in [many] respects Google has done a very good job, we’re very different from social network environments, just in the nature of the way they work, and there’s lots of stuff we can do, like can we continue to evolve our own methods to make sure we’re surfacing authoritative sources? Which we strive to do. But here, too, is an interesting conundrum with Google search, if I might?

WWD: Of course.

R.G.: We see our primary objective is to give users the most authoritative information on any given subject. And in some areas we can do that very precisely. If you ask us how tall is Theresa May, we’ll tell you, said and done, because, by the way, there are enough sources out there that agree on that number, verification by consensus. But, of course, most things aren’t that simple at all. Beyond that, Google search, to me, is to give people the ability to find anything that’s findable in the corpus of legal expression. Right? Not to decide what’s acceptable or unacceptable free expression. That means we, by definition, depending on the nature of your query, you find information that’s not authoritative. If you ask Google “Is the earth flat?” we’ll come back with a bunch of documents that have formulas and so on that say, “Eh, no it’s not.” If you ask if there are people who believe the earth is flat, we’re gonna come back with flat-earth societies.

WWD: And there are a lot of them…

R.G.: On and on and on. And that’s a comparatively simple one. There are many that are far more complex than that. When folks say, “Google, fix misinformation and disinformation,” I say, “Be careful what you’re asking an individual company to do.” There are lots of motivations to do the right things — billions of users and those billions of users can switch to alternate sources of search engines in a heartbeat. I know, I was there in ’96 running Excite and these guys at Google came out of nowhere and took out Yahoo and Excite. Gone. And so what holds us to account is the ongoing trust of our users. They need to generally feel we’re doing a good job at what we’re doing and to the extent that they feel we’re manipulating things in their disinterest, they’re not gonna be our users for long.

WWD: That concept of manipulation, personally it speaks to me because I feel I’m being manipulated all day long, mostly through methods of advertising that are increasingly nuanced, and I think media has been manipulated by advertising, to an extent. Is there any chance of a world where companies like Google and news don’t depend on advertising and can continue to exist?

R.G.: I can’t imagine advertising disappearing because it goes right back to free expression, in that sense commercial speech. If one wanted to regulate the nature of advertising, one theoretically could, but it is deeply embedded in our media structures. Advertising has been the core support for media for such a long time.

Now, there are changes going on there. In the sense of advertising as the primary mechanism of support for news, that business model has changed and that’s not likely coming back, simply because, and I want to be clear here, because this is important, people often look at the disruption of the news model and attribute it to the nature of the ad environment we’re in, even attribute it to Facebook and Google and that’s not even close to accurate.

WWD: You mean the idea that you’re taking this revenue from them directly?

R.G.: Yeah, and the reason I say this, the modern American newspaper in 1985 was in a sense the Internet of its community then, it wasn’t interactive, but it was everything a community needed to get by with their daily lives. And let’s just look at common behaviors [in that context] and the most common behaviors were people accessing mundane information, stuff like movie listings. Where did my mom go to get a recipe for dinner and clip it out and put it in a three-ring binder? We all have those in garages somewhere…

WWD: You might need them…

R.G.: They’re still good recipes! But she went to the food section of the local newspaper. And that was obviously the behavior that enabled supermarket advertising. Going to the paper for movie listings enabled movie studio advertising. Going to the fashion section enabled the department store advertising. So, then the behavior shifted. It is shifting. And subscriptions are becoming and will become the dominant sources of revenue for many of these institutions. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

WWD: So future thinking, do you see in 10 years any daily print papers?

R.G.: Ahh. I think, as a form, it’s obviously, it’s not necessarily an efficient form. Clearly it’s going to peter out — five years, 10 years, I don’t know. If you simply look at younger generations, it’s completely irrelevant — our heads are in [our smartphones] all day. So what is the value of a print vehicle? Who knows how display [ads] evolve, but print is costly and not terribly efficient.

WWD: And people have never really paid the full cost of print media.

R.G.: Never. In fact, back to the business models of modern newspapers, the circulation revenue back then, about 5 percent of the total, was basically covering the cost of the newsprint itself.

WWD: So what’s Google in 10 years?

R.G.: What I hope is for us to continue to be smarter at what we do. As I often say, the algorithms aren’t perfect, they won’t ever be, because the environment changes, the ecosystem changes, but clearly our capabilities will evolve. I think we’re doing amazing things with machine learning. Can we provide more valuable assistive services? Can we have a better sense of what you might need when you need it and help you with that? And I’m just thinking in terms of search and news, not driverless cars or health. What do we do with the enormous amount were putting into smart speakers in the home? How do we make them more helpful?

WWD: Do you think you could ever be in a better position to have an influence over the news than you do right now at Google?

R.G.: It’s hard to imagine. I’d been in a period of semi-retirement and I came to Google. I have a strong interest in news, a strong interest in journalism and I felt like if one was gonna try to have an impact on the environment, Google is an extraordinary place to do that. One thing I always point out, when you look at our mission, and what we do it is very much simpatico with journalism and news, we are about organizing the world’s information and making it available and it is tied to the open free expression of the worldwide web. Google search is our core product and if there’s not a rich ecosystem of knowledge out there, that’s not good for search. Our ad tech is used by two million publishers on the web and we only make money when they do, so we have interest, even business motivations toward environments for expression. And I do think we try to be very principled in what we do. So yes, I think it is, for me, and probably for anyone, the ideal position to be in if you’re trying to influence this.

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