Richard Gingras has a firm voice and straight mid-length white hair that give him the charm and the authority of both a guru and a Renaissance thinker. We talked for an hour via Google Meet - me in the late afternoon from my room in the Rome countryside, him from his house in Silicon Valley in bright morning. We discussed local news and freedom of expression, open society and the internet.

In an exclusive interview with Blasting News, Gingras - the Vice President of News at Google - analyzes the most important challenges we face today, including the future of news, how tech can help foster a better media landscape, how the pandemic has changed information and how Google is working to create a more inclusive and healthier information ecosystem worldwide.

And despite the pandemic and the struggle of media outlets, Gingras is optimistic about the future of media and journalism, stressing that the key “is to give citizens the information they need to be informed citizens.”

What is Google actively doing to help users, media outlets and journalists navigate this highly uncertain time?

There are many dimensions: first is what we are doing to make sure that users coming to Google products are getting access to the right information.

News could be vectors of disinformation and misinformation so we’ve looked at it in several dimensions. One is making sure that we are servicing the right authoritative articles in response to pandemic queries. The level of queries around the pandemic is through the roof. We switch to the mode we use during the elections: making sure that the site is authoritative, diminish the focus on opinion because opinion is often less reliable.

Secondly, in a pandemic a key element is what the numbers are, how many cases and where, what’s the mortality rate. We made special efforts to go to direct sources in countries around the world to get the information from governments where it is available, from the World Health Organisation to news organizations.

And then third is: in a lot of these queries the traffic to news sites has gone up but the interest of those users is less about the political dimension of the pandemic and more about the practical dimension.

How does it impact my daily life? What’s going on in my community? What is the state of the schools? What about the stores? In the U.S. we shared the most asked questions with the news organizations to make sure that they have a page with an answer to user questions.

This is the practical stuff - but then we also have financial questions related to the pandemic…

COVID has had an impact: businesses are not open, advertising revenues are going down. That’s a huge problem and we can't solve it alone. We did launch a Global Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, where we distributed some 40 million dollars to local news organizations around the world, 56,000 local news organizations in total. Again, this is the immediate stuff.

But what do we do to foster the next generation of news ecosystems at a national level and at a local level? How do we deal with the evolution of the business model and with the evolution of journalism? I am very optimistic about the future of journalism and the future of news, but it does require reinvention and massive scaling of the results of that reinvention around the world.

As you know, the COVID-19 infodemic is almost as worrying as the spread of the virus itself. How is Google fighting this?

It’s all about adapting many of the mechanisms we had in place and still have to address misinformation. We work on the security level: are we monitoring bad actors coordinating efforts of disinformation?

What about fake sites? Secondly, we work with our algorithm to make sure that it is capturing the right phrases on the pandemic, the right words and structures. And then we are expanding some of the programs, like fact-checks, that help address misinformation. The fact-check community has grown extensively over the last several years - we had a role in developing that and we think it is a very important dynamic. We are also continuing with our training and our work with newsrooms to make sure they are aware of the various techniques to detect misinformation as well.

But this pandemic is not just a matter of bad actors, it has also a big political impact around the world...

In general, misinformation is a societal problem and this pandemic has become a politically divisive issue around the world, which has gone beyond the performance of the bad actors in the dark corner of the internet.

Traditional media is involved with that, mainstream media is involved with that, we have our politicians in many areas of the world who are themselves looking to spin or skew people’s perception of the problem in ways we all consider to be unhealthy.

Do you think there could be a before and after COVID-19 in the digital world as per social media? Is it a turning point for the digital world?

Theoretically yes. Before we launched the Journalism Relief Fund I was having meetings with associations of news properties in different parts of the world. In several of those calls, I recalled local publishers saying that “this is a wake-up call with regards to our digital strategies.” Now, frankly, that is a deeply disappointing thing to hear, as well as being encouraging.

Disappointing in the sense that here we are 25 years into the internet and you have traditional news entities that have not aggressively pursued digital strategies. At the same time, I’m an optimistic person and I say “well ok - at least you get the wake-up call.” How do we move forward? More generally, this pandemic is sharpening the focus on what is important and what is not, both in terms of the nature of journalism you are providing as well as the business model that you use to provide it.

What is the motivation behind the Google News Initiative?

The motivation is a simple one: it’s how we enable this healthy news ecosystem. Our motivation is pretty straight forward. I’ve been working at Google now for over 10 years and I came to Google because I felt that Google was a fairly unique company: its success sits on top of an open ecosystem.

Google Search's success is related to the fact that it is a rich ecosystem of open expression. We have high-level ideals about the importance of journalism in open societies and I can make the case that our business is more successful in open societies. But if you take it down to our financial interests, we need to make sure that there is a healthy ecosystem, because, without it, that’s not good for search nor for advertising technologies. But really it is the trust, it’s what we can do to help find those new models of success to make a healthy ecosystem going forward.

Do you see any tension between the world of objective and high-quality journalism and an ad revenue model that could generate a clickbait culture?

In our societies news media has largely been supported by advertising since its inception. We talked about the attention economy. This is nothing new, we have had an attention economy since the introduction of radio and television. We can even say since the introduction of newspapers. So advertising in the attention economy is nothing particularly different here.

Now, in terms of the method of financial support for strong independent journalism, there is no particularly perfect model. If it’s advertising-supported, you can say “well, am I susceptible to shifting the focus of my journalistic work depending on the interest of my advertising revenue and specific advertiser?” There is always that risk.

The same is true for membership and subscription models. I think it’s a very powerful approach - but you can shift the focus, tone, or political attitude of your coverage towards what you think your subscribers want. And you can say the same about philanthropic support or other institutional support. There is always the possibility that you are going to skew your journalistic efforts depending on what those who are backing you want you to do. So ultimately it is about the wisdom of the leadership. We have examples of success with advertising models, membership models, or government supporting models. But it is all about the wisdom of the leadership and the way that it resists the urge to be influenced by the flow of dollars.

Do you think that the future of news lies with a subscription model? Or do you still see a space for an ad revenue model?

I don’t think there's any question, there’s a future for advertising. When you think about successful models to support journalism it is important to recognize that the information ecosystem is not homogeneous. It’s a range of different types of products, focused on different types of audiences. There is a big difference between a national publication or even an international publication like The New York Times, versus a local publication like the Longmont Observer in Colorado, the mix of revenues will vary accordingly.

Let’s look at advertising: what’s happened to the newspapers in the United States?

Forty years ago they were the internet of their communities, you went to them for every bit of information you needed. And most wasn’t about the news. You want to know where the movies are showing, can I get coupons for discounts at the supermarket, about the sports scores, the stock quotes. What happened is not that the revenues moved, but the audience moved. You don’t go to the newspapers for that information anymore. You go to other sites on the internet. So we are doing a lot of work at a local level with local publishers: they work on their communities. Yes, accountability journalism is important, but also local media outlets are important and advertising is relevant for them. Village Media has had the best three months in its ten-year history right during COVID because they are very successful in building relationships with local institutions in the community.

So to summarize, there are opportunities in advertising but they very much depend on their content focus. If you are like ProPublica, advertising is likely not going to be the answer - but for local news I think there is an opportunity.

Since 2016 the tech world has taken precautions against interference by foreign actors. What action are you taking in light of this year’s election?

What we have done in elections in most countries of the world is working with organizations like the First Draft Coalition and setting up collective news organizations to basically manage war rooms and say “all right, let’s track what’s going on.” The playbooks we have in place are fairly consistent but for sure they need to be modified for every newer election in every part of the world.

Blasting News is an open platform and our mission is to give people a voice. How far do you think this is possible and what are the main challenges?

I think it is very possible to give people a voice. I think the challenge like anything else is understanding where can it work and not work. For what kind of journalist, focus on what kind of information, can it work and not work. I don’t think this is necessarily the right path for a journalist coming right out of school because they haven't established any area of expertise, any reputation. I think the other important part is: what further can be done from a standpoint of collaboration and syndication? There is a lot going on in collaborative journalism. How can you bring together a network of independent journalists? Talking about syndication, the question is, how do you gain an audience? Is your work utilized by other media?

What is your vision for the media in the next ten years?

I’ll tell you what I am optimistic about and I can also tell you what I am a little bit concerned about. I am more optimistic than pessimistic, so I start with the pessimistic. The big question facing our world today is the internet has basically enabled free expression beyond the dreams of any of us who strongly believe in free expression. I live in a country with the first amendment, which is probably as bold as any declaration of free expression that you have in any place in the world. And I think that the internet has enabled that beyond any dream I would have ever had 20 years ago. You can use it to distribute quality, thoughtful information to inform citizens of the societies, or you can use it to produce propaganda.

The key question facing us around the world is: how do we manage free expression in the world of the internet? That's an unanswered question. How do we address our intrinsic inclination as human beings to be tribal? If the head of my tribe says that the moon is blue, then as a member of that tribe I will look at the moon and say “maybe it is”, because if I say it isn’t, then maybe I will be kicked out. Journalism has to find solutions to these questions. My favorite definition of journalism is to give citizens the knowledge and information they need to be informed, citizens. Teach them how to think, not tell them what to think. Journalism shouldn’t reaffirm people’s specific point of view and fall victim to our tribal nature.

And the optimistic one?

We can use technology to enable us to do journalism we couldn’t do before. In a world of big data, the tools are crucial. But there is a more basic question: are you listening to your audiences? Are you evolving your approach to meet their needs? Are you evolving your approaches to journalism that are appropriate to our times? How can we use data journalism to guide our communities to understand what it is important and what it is not?

I’ll give you an example. There was that parliament attack in London back five or six years ago. Four people died. It was obviously a big story. Here in the United States, our news networks went wall to wall for two or three days and all they were talking about was the London bombing, repeating short videos of the event. And again four people died. Each of those days in the United States there was mass shootings of four or more people that didn’t get into the news cycle. How do we guide our citizens to be informed citizens if we can’t give them a better statistical understanding of what’s important and what’s not? We have people that vote based on unjustified fears of foreign terrorism versus the situation with the graduation rates in their schools, with the crime rate in their communities, with the air quality index, with the economic index. Do they have a good understanding of the key metrics of their community? Again, the key is to give citizens the information they need to be informed citizens. I’m optimistic about that, but there are challenges. However, to solve these problems, I think that first, we need to understand the right questions because, without the understanding of the right questions, you can’t even hope to get to the right answers.