This morning Google announced it’s rolled out an entire suite of tools designed to make journalists’ jobs easier. Spotted by TechCrunch, Journalist Studio features 13 new tools that focus on things journalists of all different specialties do on a daily basis, like fact-checking, data-combing, and graph creation. While the tools are part of the company’s news initiative, and honestly pretty neat, they absolutely do not make up for Google’s apocalyptic ads business that has been screwing over journalism for a while. Something a $1 billion payout to news rooms over the next three years won’t really solve.
But let’s talk about the tools first. Two of the new tools, Pinpoint and The Common Knowledge Project (Beta), seems to be the two that Google is pushing the hardest for journalists to check out first, even though some of the other tools seem to be more helpful. All this goes without saying that, yes, you have to be a journalist to use these tools, and yes you have to submit your information to Google before it will grant you access. And yes, you have to have a personal Gmail account in order to use these tools.
But Pinpoint, according to this document, can help with investigative stories, fact-checking, archive search, audio transcriptions, and writing a bunch of other types of articles that would normally require manually slogging through hundreds of pages of text. Users can upload files to the tool from their Google Drive or computer, organize them into collections, and share them with other people in the newsroom. It seems exactly like how sharing documents and folders work in Google Drive.
Pinpoint can also help users search for text from within images, turn images of handwritten documents into typed text, and automatically transcribe audio files. There’s also an Explore feature with curated collections from different organizations that anyone with approved access can view. It’s small at the moment, but some of the collections include the Mueller Report, FBI files on Ronald Regan, and findings on ICE/CPB child mistreatment complaints. Unfortunately, this feature is currently US-focused, and it’s not clear when these collections will expand to include international sources.
The Common Knowledge Project uses data from Data Commons, an “open knowledge repository that combines data from public datasets” like the U.S. Census and the CDC. Right now, the project includes only a small subset of data like US demographics, economy, housing, education, and crime, and naturally come with caveats that Google points out on the project page. But it’s a start.
You can view interactive charts that others have made or create your own based on the data that the tool uses. On my page, I see various demographic breakdowns of Los Angeles by race, income, age, education, and other categories. Anyone can see these examples, but if you’re a journalist who wants to make their own data set, you will still need to request access from Google.
Once you have access, you can create charts as broad or as specific as you want. If I want to look up how many students were enrolled in high school in Los Angeles, CA from 2012-2017, I can do that with a few clicks. I can also change how I want that data visually represented: line graph, slope, bars, whatever may best visualize the data I want to show. If you need to look up something extremely specific you’d still need to do some traditional digging, but this tool is an okay starting point. Google’s Public Data Explorer and the Dataset Search are much better tools for looking up more specific information because they use more data sets from more places.
The full set of tools include: the Advanced Protection Program; Data Commons; DataSet Search; Fact Check Explorer; Flourish, a tool for visualizing data using customizable templates; Google Data GIF Maker; Google Public Data Explorer; Google Trends; a DIY VPN called Outline; Project Shield to defend against digital censorship; and tiled cartogram maker Tilegrams.
If you want to see these tools in action before you dive in yourself, the Online News Association (ONA) is holding a conference tomorrow, October 15, in which Google will provide a demonstration of all the tools in its Journalist Studio. But you will have to pay to attend the conference, and the session will not be archived afterward, unfortunately. However, Google will be holding a week-long, free training session starting October 20th as part of its news initiative on Journalist Studio and Pinpoint.
These tools are provided to journalists for free, which, okay, is nice. But as I mentioned earlier, Google’s monopoly over digital advertising has resulted in an huge number of newsroom layoffs over the last several years. Congressional investigators recently came to this conclusion in their 450-page report after they finished with a 16-month antitrust investigation of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. As the Washington Post recently reported, “Google improperly scraped rivals’ websites and forced its technology on others to reach its pole position in search and advertising.”
Not only that, Google has threatened to retaliate against other countries that have forced it to give publishers a larger cut of ad money. Even if readers want to support publications that have partnered with Google by paying directly, Google still takes a 30% cut of those subscription fees for the first year, and 15% after the first year, if those readers subscribe with their Google account. In 2019, Google pulled in $98 billion in revenue from “search and other” advertising.
Tools are nice. Tools make journalists’ jobs easier, but these tools aren’t going to fix the systemic issues Google has created for journalists and newsrooms around the world.