Google for Media? How Big Tech Is Shaping Journalism

Google.(Photo: Robbie Shade / Flickr)When Chevron launched its “community-driven news” site, the Richmond Standard, in January, locals were right to be skeptical. Richmond, California, is home to one of Chevron’s largest refineries, a refinery that caught fire in August 2012, sending 15,000 people to nearby hospitals. In 2013, several hundred protesters were arrested there for trespassing during a march and sit-in that drew thousands – including the city’s mayor and Bill McKibben of the environmental group Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency cited the refinery with 62 violations. “You don’t get 62 counts unless you have some very serious issues that need to be addressed in your culture of safety,” the EPA’s Jared Blumenfeld told the San Francisco Chronicle in December.

Obviously, Chevron could use a public relations boost, and it hopes that the Standard will help. But where other media outlets have published doubts about the legitimacy of a site whose editor already has admitted he won’t be publishing any articles expressing anti-Chevron sentiment, another Bay Area-based company getting into the journalism game, Google, hasn’t received much critique at all.

Google began its Journalism Fellowship Program last year. It’s goal: to provide news organizations ranging from the Center for Investigative Reporting to Poynter to the Texas Tribune with up-and-coming journalists. It all starts out with a week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. For the remaining nine weeks, fellows work at a major progressive media organization somewhere in the United States, ostensibly bringing with them tingly, positive feelings toward Silicon Valley’s most powerful corporation.

On March 4, a few minutes north in San Francisco, Google will hold its second in a series of “Google for Media” summits at the W Hotel. Its featured speaker is Google’s head of media outreach. At its first summit, in Miami, workshops included “Storytelling with Google Maps and Earth” and “Google+ for Journalists,” as well as non-Google-centric panels about the relationship of journalism and the internet.

How many journalists wouldn’t take the chance to be schmoozed at the W or, better yet, the Disneyland-ish Googleplex, which has become a must-see stop for big celebrities, dignitaries and industrialists when they come to the Bay Area?

One of the biggest fans of touring tech headquarters has been San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, who visits a different tech company each week during his industry-boostering “Tech Tuesdays.” Leading up to his election in 2011, Lee ran a campaign funded in large part by technology investors like venture capitalist Ron Conway and Facebook’s Sean Parker, who each spotted him $100,000 or more. Meanwhile, the city has been flooded with tens of thousands of well-paid tech workers, who have helped to push up rents for a one-bedroom apartment to around $3,000 per month, as people outside the industry are being pushed out by their landlords in favor of the “techies.”

In San Francisco, the local media is filled with stories about the common Google bus blockades, the activist hashtag #ThrownOutByTwitter highlighting controversial tax breaks received by Twitter and the founding of a tech lobbying outfit called by the above-mentioned Conway.

When the Google bus blockades became too hot an issue to ignore, instead of meeting with activists, Lee had a closed-door meeting with tech industry reps. Who can fault activists with Heart of the City – a group responsible for many of the Google bus blockades that was formed specifically to combat tech-fueled displacement – for questioning whether tech has too strong of a grasp on local politics?

Like Chevron, tech companies could use a PR boost of their own. Strategies like the Google Journalism Fellowship and its Media Summits might be key. As news organizations struggle to make ends meet, labor paid for by “benevolent” tech companies is understandably tough to turn down. And stocking press outlets with Google-friendly writers might just pay off in the form of less criticism.

EBay founder Pierre Omidyar is devoting $250 million of his own money to form the nonprofit First Look Media with respected journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi. The first slice of that, The Intercept, premiered in February. It’s great. I’m optimistic and can only hope that their journalism won’t be tarnished by the eBay connection. But then, the era of tech industrialists commanding large media organizations is new.

The old way of the mainstream – creating news while being beholden to advertisers – was always a dubious undertaking itself. The fact is, media outlets were always going to be less critical of companies that are funding them. Now, when tech billionaires can buy a large newspaper like The Washington Post, as’s Jeff Bezos did last year for what amounts to pocket change in increasingly enormous pockets, we have to wonder what it’ll mean for coverage of the tech titans.

When will we stop hearing about’s $600 million contract with the CIA? Who will still report on Apple’s sweatshops in China? And when will news of the Google-led displacement of local communities in San Francisco mostly disappear from news feeds if mainstream news sites are owned by Big Tech? We can and should support alternative media sources, but many people will continue to get their information from the mainstream.

Google Journalism Fellowships, the company’s site says, are geared toward “those that are steeped in investigative journalism to those working for press freedom around the world and to those that are helping the industry figure out its future in the digital age.” Nowhere on the site does Google mention how it is molding that future, nor that it could easily have a say in what defines “press freedom” before long.

The editor of Chevron’s new site seems refreshingly forthcoming by comparison.