They've worked with municipalities to provide free wireless and broadband Internet, created the world's most popular email service -- also gratis -- and now they are giving newsrooms around the country pro bono access to their new Google Media Tools site.
On Tuesday, March 4, Google's media outreach department invited Bay Area reporters, bloggers, photojournalists and media professionals to the W Hotel in San Francisco for a summit on the intersection of technology and journalism -- and to tout their recently launched media-oriented project.
Over the course of the day-long event, dubbed "Google for Media: San Francisco," representatives from universities, major news outlets and Google gave speeches, participated in panels, and led smaller workshops -- all focused on using cutting-edge technologies and web-based tools to tell stories.
"Today's event is about giving journalists an opportunity to talk about, in a local sense, what's happening in the digital age -- what are the challenges, what are the opportunities," Daniel Sieberg, head of Google's media outreach team, told the Voice.
Google's Media Tools page, which basically functions as a hub for all of the company's apps that journalists might find useful, was launched in October 2013. That same month, Sieberg and his team began holding media-focused events in major U.S. cities to promote the new product. Tuesday's event was the first to be held on the West Coast.
Brave new world
The first part of the day consisted of speeches, presentations and panels on the myriad high tech tools available to journalists. Participants included members of Google's media outreach team, as well as representatives from the event's co-organizers: the Online News Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, Northwestern University's Knight Lab, and UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
After an introductory speech from Sieberg, photographer and "visual journalist" Samaruddin Stewart took the main stage to discuss the digital tools to use to figure out if a photo has been doctored.
He explained how media outlets, lawyers and insurance companies are using "imagery forensics" to determine how much a given image has been altered with software like Photoshop. Techniques include examining photo files for clues about which editing programs an image has been run through, and looking for geotags to verify the location a given picture was taken. Stewart also talked about common techniques that are often deployed to doctor images and the tell-tale "footprints" that give such frauds away.
Audrey Cooper, managing editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, outlined her publication's efforts to modernize the 150-year-old paper's coverage and create more engaging content. "Too much of daily journalism has become boring," Cooper told the room.
Cooper discussed the steps she has taken to push her newsroom to create more multimedia content and innovate on the web. In order to motivate her editorial team, she created a contest to see which of her reporters could produce the best video for the web.
Cooper also detailed how she had moved the paper's bloggers and web producers into a room entirely separate from the old newsroom, in the hope that getting them out of the offices where the print paper is produced would aid their creative process, and prevent them from worrying about how their stories would work in print.
"We all know print readership is going like that," Cooper said, tracing a downward slope in the air with her hand. She was referring to the declining number of news consumers who turn to paper and ink media, and the rise in the number of readers who access media on computers and mobile devices. "There are no more print readers being born today."
All of this begs the question: what is traditional media to do? The answer, according to all of the morning's speakers and panelist, is that media must adapt.
A helping hand?
Google, to be sure, is more than willing to help with that. The second part of the day was broken into various workshops, in which members of Google's media team talked about a variety of free Google tools available to journalists -- whether it be creating and maximizing the reach of a YouTube channel, conducting interviews with Google Hangouts, using Google's analytics tools to stay on top of trends, or embedding Google-produced maps and data visualizations into stories.
And yet, while Google is happy to share how its innovations can help the media tell stories, the company's public relations department can often prove to be a major obstacle for reporters.
Recently, when the Voice asked about the company's trial run of a ferry service from San Francisco to Redwood City -- a seemingly banal topic, which had been confirmed by a number of local and national news organizations -- a representative from the company would only speak on background, and asked that the paper not attribute any information about the service to any official Google sources.
When asked about the sometimes standoffish nature of the search giant's public relations department, Maggie Shiels, Google's international media liaison, insisted that the company tries first and foremost to be helpful to journalists. Sometimes, however, the company is unwilling or not ready to talk to the press about certain things, she acknowledged.
"Until a deal is done, a deal isn't done," she explained. "If you start talking about it, you put a lot of pressure on the teams that are trying to work on a product. ... A lot of the process is about failing. And you want to do failing in private. ... Why talk about something that just doesn't work, that people will never see?"
When asked if Google had any ulterior motives with the San Francisco event (breakfast, lunch, and an open bar were provided to all attendees), Sieberg said he and his team's only intention was to create "a forum for journalists to talk candidly and openly about what they're working on."
"The truth is," Sieberg said, "I don't know of a time we've ever charged people for an event. Google events are free."