Inside story from a top Googler

It doesn’t matter who you are or how clever you are, you’re never clever enough. That’s an especially amusing realisation to make when you are sitting on the 1st floor of Google HQ, a company unashamedly intent on changing our world.

Three tsunamis have swept over media in the last decade – search, social and mobile.

Google got blind-sided by two of them.

“This is a fragile company and we run scared,” says head of Google News Richard Gingras with a sobriety designed to disguise the over-statement.

Such confession from inside Google, where the food and drink really is free, feels incongruous with the Masters of the Universe image of Googlers and Nooglers, the new-starters on the Mountain View campus.

“We didn’t forecast how quickly the mobile ecosystem would emerge,” says Gingras, continuing his confession. “More than half our traffic is now from mobile.” He laughs at his own statistic that more smartphones were sold last year than toothbrushes. “Everything is ripe for change.”

Arguably, the bigger miss was failing to respond to Facebook.

“We didn’t see social coming at all,” says Gingras without excuse or explanation for how Google+ has never looked like matching the Zuckerberg powerhouse. “We don’t consume media anymore more, we all live within the media.

“What really keeps us awake at night is, what will be the big thing three years from now. We need to be comfortable to drive decision-making down the organisation, evolve our skills and prepare to deal with failure.”

His boss and co-founder, Larry Page, can ring him at 3am to talk innovation and “taking audacious, big bets”. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove famously said, “only the paranoid survive”.

The chief innovation office is “really the job of the CEO,” says Gingras bluntly.

Gingras is an old school journalist, starting his career in American broadcasters NBC and PBS but claims to be “addicted to the smell of ink and newsprint”. The Google office, he says, is “all too clean”.

He has a passion for the democratisation of information that isn’t corporate shtick but runs deep. His father, a Hollywood screenwriter, was jailed for a year during the McCarthy era in which thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or sympathisers. “Our Constitution is rich but our free expression is fragile,” he says.

Google critics might say the company’s view of copyright is just as fragile.

Gingras acknowledges the criticism it receives for snatching up headlines and links from newspapers and their websites. “Nobody reads Google News,” he says in a serious tone. “Our objective is to drive traffic away from us. The only metric is publisher clicks. If you’re not clicking, then we are not choosing the right articles.

“We do this for a billion users every week and drive 10 billion visits to newspaper websites every month. That traffic alone has monetary value.”

Google data shows that a newsroom focus on the home page can be disproportionate to the impact on the business. Social networks are now pushing up to 25 per cent of all traffic to news sites and the so-called blogosphere is responsible for another 15 per cent.

“You have to figure out how to use these tools,” says Gingras.

This is a common narrative within giant content platforms such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo! Each is seeking out sustainable relationships with quality content providers, such as newspaper publishers, offering as a lure for content their own massive audiences of hundreds of millions of users.

“Every dimension of journalism should be open to different thinking,” he says. “It is not about one approach to an article.” To transform thinking in the newsroom, Gingras says it is “important focus on building a work culture that is imbued with a sense of innovation”.

The Google News team has started an initiative in which it aims to rank journalism based on the legitimacy of the source. The goal, says Gingras, is to “give credit where it is due”.

“There are some sites that just do quick rewrites of other journalists’ articles,” Gingras continues. “We want to give those who are doing the original reporting the audiences they deserve.”

How this will work is unclear but Gingras promises those who aggregate content will be the big losers.

Speaking to a group of 30 editors and newspaper executives around the world, part of a tour organised by the International News Media Association (INMA), Gingras said he didn’t believe general news coverage could sustain a paid content model and urged publishers to consider the ecosystem of digital information before designing their business models.

The New York Times was praised for its recently launched apps that focus on slithers of content, such as opinion, food and entertainment. “A single title such as The New York Times, can be a stable of brands and products,” he said.

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