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Why Is Google Removing News Links for Some Californians?

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A building with glass windows and a huge multicolored logo reads, "Google."
A view of Google Headquarters in Mountain View on March 23, 2024. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Updated 1:15 p.m. Thursday

How do you find your news: Through social media? Email? Google?

If you answered the latter and you live in California, you might find that getting your news through Google just got harder.

Google said it’s currently testing a process in which the tech conglomerate is “removing links to California news websites” among its search results. In a blog post announcing the move, Google’s VP of Global News Partnerships, Jaffer Zaidi, stated that Google was taking this action “to prepare” for the “possible implications” of a bill making its way through the California state legislature. The bill, called the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), would call upon tech companies to pay media outlets for posting and using their content.

In response, the News/Media Alliance — a journalism advocacy organization — has called upon the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to “investigate whether Google is violating federal law in blocking or impeding their ability to find news that they rely upon for their business, their prosperity, their pleasure, their democracy and, sometimes, their lives.”

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On Thursday, nearly 350 local California publishers signed a letter to show their support for the California Journalism Preservation Act. The publishers include a variety of outlets — from large newspapers like the LA Times to ethnic media newsrooms including El Sol — who said they “stand united in our efforts to preserve journalism in California.”

“Around 40 percent of Google Search results contain news articles,” the letter read. “Even when readers do click through and can see the ads on our sites, Google takes another 70% of each advertising dollar, as it controls digital advertising technology, the topic of an anti-trust suit that California has joined.”

So, how could this change from Google affect how you find California news?

If you’ve noticed some gaps in your recent Google searches or are worried, you might read below to learn more about what this means for you and your local journalism ecosystem.

How many people in California will be affected by Google removing news links?

In the April 12 statement, Google’s Zaidi wrote that the blockage would be a “short-term” test for “a small percentage of California users.”

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So theoretically, if you are part of the “small percentage of California users,” when you search for a news topic in California, you will not see articles from local publications within the state like KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle or the LA Times.

But it’s unclear how many people are actually affected by this change — or how long the “test” will continue.

It’s also unclear if users can turn this test off in their settings. A Google spokesperson declined KQED’s request to provide any further information about the test — or who is affected — outside of the April 12 blog post.

Why is this happening now?

“We’re mostly viewing this as a political attack as much as it is a technical test,” said Steve Waldman, the CEO of the nonprofit Rebuild Local News. “This is Google sending a message that if the legislature passes the bill that they don’t like, the newsrooms and residents of California will be punished for that.”

Waldman referenced similar legislation passed in Australia and Canada, which large tech companies also pushed back against.“I think, for Google, they’re looking at all these efforts to push them into providing money to publishers, and they’re thinking this is spreading around the world, and it’s creating an enormous potential liability for them,” Waldman said.

“They’re very focused on California because they’re worried that whatever comes out of California could set the template for the rest of the United States and also for other countries,” he said.

In June 2023, Instagram and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, began blocking news content from appearing in Canadian users’ feeds since Canada required the company to pay local news publications for linking to or featuring their work.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the company of “putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety” for its decision to keep blocking news content in the country even as devastating wildfires raged.

This is what Canadian Instagram users see when trying to access news:

A screenshot of an Instagram profile that was blocked with a message that reads "People in Canada can't see this content" with a message logo with a strike through it.

Meta has also threatened to do this again in California if the California Journalism Preservation Act were to pass. In May 2023, a Meta spokesperson stated that the company would “be forced to remove news from Facebook and Instagram rather than pay into a slush fund that primarily benefits big, out-of-state media companies under the guise of aiding California publishers.”

In late March, Instagram rolled out a new default setting that limited posts “likely to mention governments, elections or social topics that affect a group of people and/or society at large” appearing in user’s feeds. For many, this setting was automatically set and came with little or no warning.

So, how can I make sure I continue to see local news online?

Regardless of whether Google’s test targets an individual in California to remove news links, Waldman said that in a landscape where news is being throttled on search or social media, audiences may need to start actively looking for it instead — since news “may not just arrive in your lap or on your screen quite the same way.”

“You may have to be a little more proactive in both getting it and also supporting the local media,” Waldman said. “Advertising business for local publications has kind of plummeted, and local news is not really going to survive without the support from the community.”

If you noticed something different with your Google searches or otherwise suspect you might be part of Google’s test to limit news content in California for some users, there are other ways to find local coverage:

  • Visiting a news outlet’s website directly
  • Following your preferred news outlet on social media
  • Signing up for push notifications and breaking news alerts from your preferred news outlet
  • If your news outlet has an app, downloading and viewing articles on that platform
  • If your outlet has a podcast, listen to their feed on your preferred platforms like Apple Podcasts or Stitcher
  • If your outlet is a television or radio station, tune into that station.

Waldman said that “going into an election year that’s going to be full of misinformation,” he found it “incredibly disheartening that at the moment when we should be providing more information and more news that’s reliable … Google is temporarily choking back the availability of reliable local news.”

What’s the backstory of the bill Google is resisting?

The bill Google is responding to is AB 886 — the California Journalism Preservation Act — which, if passed, would require platforms to send “a journalism usage fee payment to each eligible digital journalism provider.” This means that Google, Facebook and other tech companies would need to pay a bargained percentage of the tech company’s ad revenue to news outlets for using media outlets’ work.

In return, the newsroom must use 70% of these funds to hire new reporters or support existing staff. The bill would also prohibit tech companies from retaliating against local outlets by placing their stories lower on a search result page.

AB 886 passed the California assembly in 2023. It would need to pass the California Senate before being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Related: How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process

The bill — introduced by Buffy Wicks (CA-14) — noted that over the past 10 years, newspaper advertising has decreased by 66% and staff by 44%. Critics say that Facebook and Google have played a large role in this breakdown by monopolizing the digital advertising market, leaving little revenue for local news outlets.

Northwestern University’s “The State of Local News” report hypothesized that by the end of 2024, “the country will have lost a third of its newspapers since 2005.” Over 500 journalists — national and local publications — lost their jobs in 2024 so far, barely over four months. In California, the LA Times laid off over a hundred people in January.

“In California, there’s been a 68% drop in the number of reporters since 2005,” Waldman said. “It’s a catastrophe, and it’s totally appropriate to ask the tech companies to help pay for fixing that.”

In the journalism and First Amendment world, advocates of the bill say it finally allows news outlets leverage over Big Tech, which they argue has gone seemingly unchecked for years. Opponents say the measure would incentivize clickbait and favor larger newsrooms.

Waldman said that given the bill’s current language —which is still open to potential revision — he agrees that larger out-of-state newsrooms would benefit more from the legislation than mid- to small-sized newsrooms in California.

“We have to come up with some public policies that are really helping the medium and small-sized papers and family newspapers, websites, nonprofits, Black and Hispanic newspapers, public radio,” he said.

What does Google say?

In Google’s April 12 blog post announcing the test to limit news links, the company highlights the Google News Showcase, a feed of news articles curated for users. The Google News Showcase partners with 200 new organizations in California alone, according to Google.

But Google would now be “pausing further investments in the California news ecosystem” — including establishing new Google News Showcase partnerships, any planned expansions of Google News and the company’s product and licensing program for news organizations — “until there’s clarity on California’s regulatory environment,” Google VP Zaidi said in the blog post.

Zaidi also claimed that “just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related,” which he framed as part of a general shift in “the rapidly changing way people are looking for and consuming information.”

However, a 2023 research study commissioned by Swiss media publishers found that “information searches” account for 55% of all internet searches, which would potentially draw from journalistic content. The research also found that the market share of Google searches that use media content results in an estimated revenue of $440 million per year.

Waldman also noted that with a company as big as Google, “just 2%” can mean a lot. “Google does place snippets of the content on their search engines,” he said. “A lot of people just look at the snippets and never click through.”.

“Google is actually getting a lot of value out of the work and money that’s been invested by the news organizations in creating content.”

Are there other legal proposals that are aiming to support journalism?

The Journalism Competition & Preservation Act

The Journalism Competition & Preservation Act, introduced by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2023, allows media companies to negotiate prices directly with social media companies about the use of their work. One of the co-sponsors includes the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

If it were enacted, research from the University of Houston estimates Google would owe California newsrooms $1.4 billion annually, which outpaces the $300 million Google provides globally in grants and newsroom investments.

California Senate Bill 1327

California Sen. Steven Glazer introduced SB 1327, which proposes an employment credit for California newsrooms. In the bill, local media organizations that employ local, California-based staff can get a subsidy from state taxes.

“Whatever policy that they come up with, our main point is that there’s a catastrophe unfolding in California right now,” Waldman said of the various legal proposals to support local journalism in the state. Legislators “need to do something,” he said.

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At the same time, “They have to be careful that they don’t accidentally make the problem worse,” Waldman said. “They need to really be attending to the needs of medium and small sized players, including ethnic media — and not just the bigger players.”

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