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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Troll at the gate

April 30, 2024

Courthouse News spends a golden wheelbarrow-full of cash on payroll every two weeks. At the entrance to the internet, controlling access to the news that money pays for, stands Google.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

Here at Courthouse News, payroll is by far our biggest cost. It amounts to a few hundred thousand dollars every two weeks.

The tech giant share of that wealth — meaning most of it — goes to reporters and editors. Compare that great sum with what Google paid us for advertising on our website last month: $344.

The “troll at the gate,” as a lawyer once called an e-filing vendor, is a good description of Google standing at the entrance to the internet.

That troll controls 91% of the search traffic and it exacts truly astonishing sums from that control: $86 billion in revenue in the last quarter of 2023, up $10 billion from the same quarter a year earlier.

The great majority of that revenue comes from selling ads.

For example, the Japanese woman who cuts my hair places a Google ad for roughly $1000 a month to appear with search terms tied to “Japanese stylist.” And it works. She gets one new inquiry every one or two days.

But less than a pittance of Google’s ad income goes to the news outlets that provide much of the search results.

So the California Legislature is considering a bill called the California Journalism Preservation Act that would require some compensation for the news stories that Google links to in its search results. The idea is that news folks would get a piece of the Google income from ads that appear next to their articles.

But the troll at the gate has its hands around the throat of the publishing business. It flexed those fingers, just a little.

Google threatened to cut links to all news articles published by California news outlets. Gosh, how best to demonstrate monopoly power than to threaten to eliminate — and have the ability to do it — any business that challenges your monopoly profits.

To show you what that would mean for us, our most-read story over the last month was our coverage of Supreme Court arguments on an immunity claim by Donald Trump. The story has been read by 129,000 people.

If the internet gatekeeper were to cut links to stories from California news outlets, the story would be read by next to no one.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association — of which Courthouse News is a member — supports the legislation. And the Los Angeles Times, while a greatly diminished force in journalism, wrote an editorial on Google’s threat to cut links.

“Google’s announcement was clearly intended as a threat to news organizations and state lawmakers to stand down — or else. Specifically, Google could shut news organizations out of the world’s primary search engine, making their content difficult to find and imperiling their existence,” said the newspaper.

“It was also a show of force to lawmakers to let them know that attempts to regulate Google would not be tolerated.”

While the publishers association has 800 members and it supports the legislation, journalists are — it seems to come with the territory — a bunch of stray cats, going in opposite directions even on issues that should unite them.

For example, in the great battles by Courthouse News over access to court records when they are fresh and worth reporting have only gotten support in one region of the country, New England. The local press there has proved a scrappy bunch, plenty willing to jump into our First Amendment fights.

To illustrate that independent streak, I searched for other descriptions of the New England personality. I found the result fascinating, but not because of the description itself.

The top result came from a Google AI composite which had to rely on news articles and other publications. So Google is using AI to take its trove of information, based on published descriptions, to publish its own article.

“New Englanders are known for their friendly, warm hospitality, and down-to-earth approach to life. They also have a distinct dialect and attitude, and a strong regional identity,” Google’s AI wrote.

So then I wanted to see what the AI said about the California Journalism Preservation Act. In the top set of results was a Google Blog entry which calls itself “news” and consists of Google’s lobbying points against the proposed legislation. While trying to push around California’s publishers, Google is also trying to fend off an attack from a bigger opponent. It is defending an ongoing monopoly prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department along with the California Attorney General.

So I searched for “Google monopoly.” The troll’s AI wasn’t touching that one. 

Categories / Media, Op-Ed, Technology

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