Rethinking ties between media and Big Tech

Google, Vivatech technology

This photograph taken on June 15, 2023 shows the shadows of visitors next to the logo of American multinational technology company Google, during the Vivatech technology startups and innovation fair in Paris. Google is working with news publishers to design a new AI-backed tool to help journalists report and write their stories, the company said on July 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

When it comes to technological media innovation, the relationship between news media organisations and technology companies – ‘Big Tech’– is a critical.

As the main custodians of cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) coupled with unrivalled financial muscle, Big Tech plays a role in shaping media technological innovation. Last week, Google pitched a new AI storytelling tool that could change how journalists and media work.

We have seen Big Tech launching funding initiatives reportedly meant to support journalists and newsrooms with their technological innovation efforts.

However, the big question remains; is Big Tech doing more harm than good for journalism and whose interests are all these initiatives serving?

To tackle this question, I will refer to a recent study that highlighted Google News Initiative’s influence on technological media innovation in Africa and the Middle East.

The study, conducted by Mathias-Felipe de-Lima-Santos (University of Amsterdam), Allen Munoriyarwa (University of Botswana), Adeola Abdulateed Elega (Nile University of Nigeria) and Charis Papaevangelou (University of Toulouse) interviewed 13 beneficiaries of the Google News Initiative (GNI) Innovation Challenge in Africa and the Middle East.

The researchers wanted to know the main characteristics of the innovations proposed by the GNI grantees and also how these media organisations are becoming increasingly dependent on Big Tech’s technological and financial aspects.

One of the major findings of this research was that the beneficiary organisations heavily relied on Google’s technological and financial infrastructure, with some projects failing to move beyond the minimum viable product stage.

Unbalanced power dynamics

These findings are sobering and call for serious introspection in the media circles. Dependence on big tech not only puts media innovation efforts at serious risk, it also leads to unbalanced power dynamics that disadvantage media organisations.

The media should invest in a deeper understanding of technology and put significant financial investment in technology to drive their own technological innovation.

Simply put, media organisations – regardless of their size – must never outsource their innovation to third parties, despite the tough financial environment.

Another challenge identified in the study was the lack of knowledgeable IT professionals in the newsrooms to drive some of these projects. This is a fundamental problem in many newsrooms today, and part of the self-examination by the media must involve investing in the right IT talent to close the gap between technology and media innovation.

Essentially, journalism initiatives by Big Tech are welcome and helpful for some media organisations and for public interest. That said, at a much deeper level, we must rethink these relationships between Big Tech and media to equal partnerships where one party is not over-relying on the other for technology or finances.

The bottom line, however, remains that media must invest in understanding technology for themselves and must double down on their internal intellectual horsepower to navigate the technological disruption.

- Dr Chege is a media and technology researcher.