New study exposes philanthrocapitalism’s failure to effectively back journalism in the Global South. 

In the fast-paced world of media innovation, the game-changing bond between news organizations and tech giants takes center stage. Armed with cutting-edge tech and deep pockets, Big Tech firms hold the keys to revolutionizing media technology and even entire media landscapes.

These tech titans are also dishing out cash to fuel innovation in journalism and newsrooms, in what researchers have dubbed “philanthrocapitalism.”  The clash between their roles in the media is impossible to ignore.

But are these support initiatives doing more harm than good for journalism and who do they really benefit? To shed light on this matter, a team of researchers from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Botswana, Nile University of Nigeria, and the University of Toulouse conducted a study on the Google News Initiative (GNI), a funding program, and its impact on media innovation in Africa and the Middle East. The researchers interviewed 13 winners of the GNI Innovation Challenge in those countries.

A Toxic Dependence

The GNI Innovation Challenge granted funds for 43 projects in 18 countries across Africa and the Middle East between 2019 and 2021. Most of the projects, approximately 42%, focused on developing a business model for the applying organizations. Another 30% of them were focused on technological innovations, and approximately 28% of them focused on boosting their audiences.

According to the study, Israel and Jordan led in introducing novel technologies in their newsrooms. The research reveals that the media organizations benefiting from the GNI heavily relied on Google’s technological and financial infrastructure. Moreover, many of these ventures died after the initial stages of development, which shows the inherent risks of depending on industry behemoths for media innovation endeavors. Furthermore, this reliance has given rise to a lopsided power dynamic that places media organizations at a distinct disadvantage, according to the study.

The region’s lack of tech know-how has caused major headaches for organizations tapping into Google’s cash. Take Citizen Bulletin, for example, who had to rely on other groups to get their project off the ground. Once the grant money ran dry, they went under.

This study raises some serious concerns. Funding from tech giants is crucial for media outlets, but it’s no magic solution. In fact, the study shows that it has zero impact on the sustainability of the media ecosystem. If anything, these funds push outlets to chase after projects that can secure more money, diverting them from achieving long-term stability.

In order to combat these dangers, media entities of all sizes must proactively invest in technology and allocate significant financial resources towards driving their own groundbreaking innovations. Relying on third parties for innovation is simply not feasible.

Moreover, while journalism initiatives by Big Tech can offer advantages to specific media organizations, the Big Tech-media relationship must transform into fair and equal partnerships. Currently, this relationship is completely one-sided, with tech companies exerting dominance and dictating the terms of collaboration. This severely harms the media industry. It is up to tech companies to rectify this imbalance. However, they have no interest in doing so for a key reason: the lack of commercial incentives.

In Bed with Oligarchs?

First, GNI was initially presented as a program aimed to strengthen independent journalism, but it may actually be nothing more than a clever PR ploy to woo media outlets and placate regulators. The study cited in this article strongly suggests that the GNI lacks any real impact on the sector’s sustainability.

Secondly, practices that are common in Google’s core business are in tension with its support for media. Google for example promotes biased and manipulative media sources on its search engine. In a 2021 study, the International Press Institute (IPI), a Vienna-based media freedom organization, uncovered Google’s favoritism towards Turkish pro-government media outlets. Moreover, as part of the GNI program, Google even provided financial backing to Demiroren Media Group, a highly controversial media conglomerate known for its unwavering support of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK). Many other studies have shown that Google’s priorities lie elsewhere, and independent journalism is not one of them.

Finally, it seems that Google is designing support programs merely, or also, to promote their cutting-edge technologies. Take the GNI Innovation Challenge project, for instance. Most novel tech-focused projects funded as part of the project consisted of solutions to bring AI to their newsrooms. This move is no surprise, considering Google’s substantial interest, along with other tech giants, in dominating the booming AI market.

It is becoming increasingly evident that funds from the tech sector, in their current form, are not doing the media field many favors. “To develop journalistic innovation in their newsrooms, grants such as the GNI Innovation Challenge seem to be the path of least resistance,” according to the study cited in this report.

A Balancing Act?

What media can do is, on one hand, explore partnerships with other sectors, such as academia and research institutions, to drive innovation. Collaborating with diverse stakeholders can bring fresh perspectives and foster cross-disciplinary approaches to media technological advancements. However, that is not easy because such collaborations take time and effort to set up. Moreover, none of those partners has the financial power that players like Google have.

To tackle the complex dynamics between Big Tech and media, robust policies are needed. Governments and regulators must step up and level the playing field, implementing policies that curb monopolistic behavior and foster fair competition. This will empower media organizations, giving them a wider range of options and enabling them to negotiate on equal footing with tech giants, thus helping the media ecosystems to thrive.

Without such policies, tech companies will be left to decide how they will share the support between independent and pro-government media.

Photo by Kai Wenzel on Unsplash