Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Google Digital News Initiative, Two Years In

Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Google Digital News Initiative, Two Years In

Two years ago, Google set up the Digital News Initiative (DNI) to promote collaboration between technology companies and the media industry. At the centre is a commitment to work with the publishers who have been informing the European public for centuries and the rising tide of startups in news, and help them try out new experiments which harness the power of the web. The DNI has three areas of focus: product development, research and training and The DNI Innovation Fund, €150 million available for news organisations to try out new ideas.

Since 2016, we’ve evaluated more than 3,000 applications, carried out 748 interviews and funded projects in 27 European countries. The diversity of applicants and ideas has been deeply impressive, and we’re delighted to issue our own publication: the first DNI fund annual report. This covers in depth the first and second rounds of funding, where we offered €51 million to 252 projects.

The third round was announced in July this year—so it’s too early for detailed analysis—but it brought the funding today to €71 million. The fourth round opens for applications on September 13th.

“I remember the excitement I felt in anticipation of reading the first applications that came in, and feeling humbled by the responsibility to evaluate each one of them,” writes Ludovic Blecher, Head of the DNI Innovation Fund in the report. “We looked for collaborations and you rose to the challenge with an array of great projects across Europe and beyond.”

The fund comes at a critical time for news media. Throughout history, news publishers have played a critical role in maintaining democracy and holding power to account. The past decade has presented both significant challenges and new opportunities for the creation and distribution of quality journalism, to say the least. From the invention of the printing press, through the introduction of radio and television, and now in the digital age, the way people are informed about the world around them has constantly changed.

“Today’s news media are in an environment of ever-increasing plurality, and in many places the freedom of the press is under threat,” said João Palmeiro President of the Portuguese Publishers Association and Chair of the DNI Innovation Fund. “But our mission and purpose remains the same. To tell the stories of the world around us--sharing pleasure and sorrow, culture and destruction, pain and progress.”

That’s why the fund was designed to provide no-strings-attached awards to existing news organisations wanting to experiment and test novel ideas. The biggest, boldest ideas often start small, and the DNI Fund is poised to give those with the right background a chance to try something new.

France’s Le Monde, a journal of record, decided to tackle the scourge that is “fake news” after they noticed a growing feeling of distrust among French readers. With conspiracy theories and baseless rumours spreading rapidly across social media, Samuel Laurent, head of Le Monde’s fact–checking unit Les Décodeurs, wants to change the way people see the news. His team developed Decodex, three fact–checking products powered by a database of 600 websites. This allows readers to manually submit URLs that they want to test the veracity of, as well as a free browser attachment which uses a coloured labelling system to indicate potential fake news. A Facebook Messenger bot provides mobile users with a similar experience.

Projects like Decodex are necessary because the web means anyone can publish anything. Of course, that has positive sides as well. This abundance of information gives new breadth and depth to investigative journalism.

Eliot Higgins went from being unemployed in his bedroom in Leicester, UK, to become a world–leading expert in news verification. He started Bellingcat, which finds and analyses reams of information on issues including the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and claims over weapons in Ukraine.

Bellingcat’s new platform, The Archive for Conflict Investigation, collects, verifies, and preserves social media content from conflict areas. The search network provides real time information about events, while creating an evidence base for use in future investigations. However, the sheer volume of work is an issue – not just for him, but for the news companies using his platform. That’s where the DNI comes in.

With financial support from the DNI, Bellingcat is looking to make this data more usable and easily discoverable. Having started Bellingcat using support from crowd funding, Higgins explains the DNI funding “allowed us to push this to the next level”.

These two projects are just a thin slice of the wide variety of ideas funded by the DNI. “Some have embraced the opportunities of big data, blockchain technology and machine learning, reinventing everything from subscription offers to fact checking,” wrote Blecher, Head of the DNI Innovation Fund. “Others have taken the paths of internal transformation through massive efforts in video, new ways to engage readers or to cover local news.”

One project that got funded in the third round is literally breaking down language barriers. German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports in 30 languages and reaches more than 135 million listeners around the world. With €437,500 from the DNI Innovation Fund, the German public broadcaster is building “news.bridge”, a platform that integrates and enhances a mix of off-the-shelf tools for automated transcription, translation, voiceover and summarising of video and audio content in virtually any language.

It’s these incredible projects that inspire us. With in-depth results from the first two rounds in the annual report, exciting initial feedback from recipients of grants in the third round, and applications for the fourth funding round opening on September 13th, we’ve never been more excited to read all about it.

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