It was supposed to be a rather mundane press conference in Vienna. Johann Oberauer was about to change that.
“Google has only one interest in mind, and that’s Google itself!” he boomed.
The Austrian publisher and host of a gathering of European newspaper chiefs challenged his audience to type “porno” into Google’s search engine, suggesting an hour-long video of 20 men violently ganging up on a woman was the first link that popped up.
“Do any of you have children?” he demanded of the audience of editors and publishers from the far corners of Europe’s newspaper landscape.
Mr. Oberauer’s motivation for the attack was simple: to scare off Europe’s publishers from cooperating with Google, the one-time Silicon Valley start-up that has come to dominate much of the world’s digital landscape, and last week lured about half a dozen European publishers into a €150 million joint project.
“It certainly woke us all up,” quipped one editor of Mr. Oberauer’s speech.
More than ever before, journalism has to show that it is worth reading. Barbara Reis, Chief Editor, Publico
Mr. Oberauer likened Google to “a parasite that can only feed off its victims while they are still alive.” Instead of taking the money, he said, “we should use our own money on a reading program for Google – of European legal texts and values.”
He’s not the only one to feel that way.
Google has long been a sort-of boogieman in European political and media circles. Last month it became the target of anti-trust charges by the European Commission for abusing its position as a search engine to further its own products. A similar investigation had been started but was eventually dropped in the United States.
There is much frustration in Europe that Google, for all its innovation and ability to revolutionize the way people gather innovation, has a tendency to take advantage of its dominance. For publishers, the chief complaint is that Google can make use of their services – by displaying search engine results with a few sentences from each story – without paying for the privilege.
It is a battle that has been brewing for years. Google hoped its overture last week of a “Digital News Initiative,” a €150 million investment fund to further European publishers, would go some of the way to easing the tensions.
“The world isn’t black and white,” Carlo D’ Asaro Biondo, Google’s top European manager, told Handelsblatt last week at the unveiling of the new initiative in London. “But it is clearly progress.”
Some big-named newspapers have taken the bait. The Financial Times and The Guardian in Britain, and Germany’s Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung are among those that have decided to make peace with the Silicon Valley giant.
Mr. Biondo insisted the search engine’s motives are pure. Google is a supporter of quality journalism and wants to work hand-in-hand with European publishers to ensure they have a real future in an uncertain digital age.
Critics likened the project to making a deal with the devil. One media publisher noted the timing was “well-chosen” so soon after the European Commission launched its anti-trust case.
But is Google just a scapegoat?
For Europe, the attacks on Silicon Valley come at a time when much of its publishing industry is struggling to make a living in the new digital world of smart phones and tablets, blogs and apps.
The New York Times offered a glimpse of how much faster things have moved in the United States, presenting an application for the Apple Watch, which isn’t even available for sale yet in Europe.
New York Times senior video correspondent Adam Ellick said the paper is on track to reach 1 million digital subscribers this year, and noted that 60 percent of the paper’s digital readers now come from smart-phone applications.
But while even the New York Times has acknowledged its struggles to make money out of its online presence, European newspapers have been even slower than their U.S. counterparts to embrace digital content.
European publishers still generate the lion’s share of their revenue from print products.
Unlike in the United States or even Britain, many continental European publishers initially ring-fenced their online operations from the newspaper operations, with online reporters paid less and in many cases treated as second-class employees. This is only just starting to change.
“If criticizing innovation were a money maker, then publishers from Germany and Austria in particular would be rich,” Handelsblatt’s publisher Gabor Steingart said in Vienna. He criticized the idea that “the Internet and Google are to blame” for the publishing industry’s problems.
Those that have moved more aggressively into the online space in Europe also challenged their peers to get with the times. Barbara Reis, the chief editor of Portugal’s Publico newspaper, said the field of journalism had become richer – not poorer – with the arrival of blogs and other online platforms to challenge conventional publishers.
"More than ever before, journalism has to show that it is worth reading," she said, cautioning her audience against pining for "the good old days" of less competition.
But even among those that acknowledge Europe’s media landscape has to change, there is some unease about where exactly Google fits into the picture.
Alexander Wrabetz, the director-general of Austria’s public television station ORF, said that while Google may have achieved its vaulted global status by being an innovative company, it was concerning that so much power is concentrated in such a small grouping of digital companies based in one tiny corner of the world.
Christopher Cermak, an editor with the Handelsblatt Global Edition, has worked as a journalist for news agencies, newspapers and online publications in the United States and in Europe. Carsten Herz of Handelsblatt also contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]