Commentary

Google's Local-News Fig Leaf Won't Cover Digital Ad Sins

Google this week announced a program to help the publishers of Minnesota’s Star-Tribunenewspaper study ways to reach younger audiences.

The plan was unveiled the same day 50 attorneys general officials announced a plan to investigate Google for possible antitrust violations, saying they had received evidence that the company had abused its market dominance in digital advertising.

During the next 18 months, Google and the Star-Tribune will study news consumption among younger audiences, design youth-oriented news products and aim to boost classroom engagement with trustworthy sources of news, according to an announcement.

While the search giant’s Google News Initiative is a noble effort to support the ailing newspaper industry, it likely won’t help to turn back the clock on diminished circulation and declining ad revenues.

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Google and social network Facebook have been blamed, somewhat unfairly, for draining ad dollars out of the news business. Those accusations are helping to spur demands for investigations into possibly anti-competitive behavior by the biggest U.S. tech companies.

It will be interesting to see what these investigations discover, and whether companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple will be compelled to undo acquisitions that helped to cement their market dominance — or radically change their business practices.

For Google, that would mean possibly reversing its acquisitions of online ad network DoubleClick, video-sharing site YouTube, smart-home device maker Nest and navigation app Waze.

None of those divestitures would put another penny into the pockets of publishers.

It’s also unclear whether the News Media Alliance, which represents more than 2,000 news organizations in the U.S., will be successful in its call for a law to give publishers collective bargaining power with Google. The organization claims that Google reaps billions of dollars by re-purposing publisher content, a charge that Google denies. 

The News Media Alliance's accusations against Google likely will gain more attention in the antitrust investigations.

As Google faces greater antitrust scrutiny, its collaboration with the Star Tribune feels like a fig leaf to help cover the search giant’s possible anti-competitive sins.

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