BMA46C East Anglian Daily Times newspaper in a letterbox
Local newspapers have struggled in the face of the digital onslaught © Alamy

Google is investing “several million dollars” into a joint venture with a British local news publisher, its first such project outside the US as the Silicon Valley giant ramps up support for an industry it has been accused of wiping out. 

The venture called Project Neon will be fully funded by Google but controlled by Archant, the Norwich-based publisher behind the Eastern Daily Press and several local titles in London. 

It will set up digital news sites in three British regions that will experiment with “different commercial approaches” such as building direct relationships with local businesses with the aim of attracting both advertising and philanthropy. The project will run over three years, after which Archant hopes the new news outlets will be self-sustaining.

Local and regional news outlets in many countries have been shutting down over the past few years as they struggle to offset falling sales of newspapers with digital advertising, a $330bn market that is increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook. Between 2005 and 2018, the UK lost 245 local news outlets, according to the Press Gazette, a British news industry magazine.

Media experts have argued that the subsequent decline in reporting on public matters in small and midsized communities has contributed to feelings of disenfranchisement that have fuelled populist movements in countries such as the US and the UK. 

Matt Kelly, chief content officer at Archant, said many regional news businesses had become reliant on so-called programmatic advertising — the buying and selling of advertising space on automated exchanges — rather than direct relationships with local companies. 

With data privacy regulation making it harder for publishers to collect and pass on its readers’ data, the situation could soon become even harder, according to Mr Kelly.

“No local newspaper group has yet found the recipe to survive in the digital age,” he said.

Google launched its News Initiative last summer, pledging $300m over three years to support journalism business models in the digital age. The move comes after the company faced criticism alongside Facebook for their roles as gatekeepers of information and news on the internet and their dominance of the digital advertising market.

“Archant has been around since 1845 and like many peers it has had generations of local news domination, but in the past 15 years that's completely changed,” Mr Kelly said.

Project Neon will be Google’s second joint venture with a news publisher after it launched a similar project with US publisher McClatchy in March. 

Madhav Chinnappa, director of news ecosystem development at Google said local news groups were vital to keeping people “informed about their communities and the news they care about”. He called the partnership between Archant and Google an effort to “rethink local news from the ground up for the age of digital”.

Mr Kelly said the project was part of a bigger story. “How does the tech industry, which has contributed to many of the problems local news face, become involved in helping solve the problem?”

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