There’s a third pot of Google money you might qualify for.

Participants rate the program as satisfying.

There’s a third pot of Google money you might qualify for.
(Photo by Alice Dreger)

By Alice Dreger

Lots of local news publishers are familiar with the Google News Initiative (GNI) grants available through INN and LION. Each comes with $20,000 plus required programming that you may or may not find helpful.

We recently ran down the differences between those two programs and relayed what INN and LION were willing to reveal about their Google deals. Today, we’re here to let you know there’s a third GNI program that also comes with programming and $20,000.

Here’s what we know:

The third program, called Transformation Tech, is run through the Fund for Equity in Local News and exists as a collaboration of three membership organizations: the National Association of Hispanic Publishers, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia

In the words of Transformation Tech, these three organizations “collectively represent the leaders of hundreds of community publications across America and focus on serving historically underrepresented populations with news and information.” 

Any active member of any one of these organizations is eligible for Transformation Tech's GNI grants, which are designed to help legacy publishers develop, launch, and/or improve digital revenue streams.

In an attempt to follow the money of Transformation Tech the way we endeavored to do with INN’s and LION’s programs, we sent questions to Ashley Woods, who co-leads Transformation Tech along with Todd Stauffer. 

Both Woods and Stauffer have been local news publishers themselves. Woods co-founded Detour Detroit (which later joined forces with Outlier Media) and is now Interim Executive Director for the Fund for Equity in Local News. Stauffer is the founder and former publisher of the Jackson Free Press (in Jackson, Mississippi) and now the Executive Director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.  

So, how much money did Google send for Transformation Tech? First, you may recall that INN told us that its contract with GNI was for up to $8,184,000, while LION told us they had a confidentiality clause in their contract that prevented them from giving us their gross grant number.

Woods’ response lined up with LION’s: “Regarding gross amounts, that information is confidential re: our contracts with Google – sorry I can’t share that.” (We’ve got a question in to INN about whether they had a contract with Google that allowed disclosure or whether they decided to be transparent despite the contract.)

“To date,” Woods reports, “we’ve graduated 121 publishers from Transformation Tech and distributed about $2.4M in grants so far. We are planning to support 240 total publishers by the end of 2024.”

Basic math tells us Transformation Tech is on target to distribute about $4.8M to 240 publishers. By comparison, INN is set to dole out about $7.4M to up to 372 publishers, and LION about $7.2M to 360 publishers. 

This is what else we can say based on what information Woods supplied:

In the case of Transformation Tech, the GNI money funded the collaboration known as the Fund for Equity in Local News (FELN). FELN is fiscally-sponsored by the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation, and that foundation collects a fee on funds raised by FELN. 

So, we can assume the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation obtained some fairly substantial overhead from the GNI funds. (Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of The Shoestring, which is also fiscally sponsored by the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation.)

Woods also explained that she, Stauffer, and the Transformation Tech coaches who work with news publishers are all paid as contractors. 

What about the content of Transformation Tech’s programming?

“Given our shared background as publishers,” Woods says, “Todd and I felt strongly about building a program that wasn’t onerous in terms of time commitment or ‘one-size-fits-all.’”

The roughly 12-week program includes only three required webinars, “and we are flexible regarding attendance,” Woods says.

Each participant is paired one-on-one with a coach “to design a revenue transformation plan for their $20k grant. We host optional meetings with news ecosystem vendors, but plenty of our publishers choose not to work with a vendor at all. Publishers can use their $20k grant to pay for staff, freelancers, equipment, tech upgrades, design fees, events – really, anything is on the table as long as they develop a SMART goal, outline their intended plan and show a potential return on investment.”

To date, Transformation Tech has provided over 600 hours of English-language and Spanish-language one-to-one coaching. Seven out of eight of the coaches hired are women, and six out of eight are persons of color.

Woods notes that the group they’re serving are not generally finding the material duplicative to other help they’ve received.

“A strong majority of publishers we serve have not taken part in a journalism coaching program or received a grant before.”

And the participants seem to be happy to have the help: “Attendance is 80% or higher for our optional coach-led ‘Ask Me Anything’ and vendor education sessions, which speaks to the enthusiasm in our corner of the news universe for any kind of programming, funding or attention.”

Says Woods, “Publishers rate their satisfaction with Transformation Tech at 4.75/5 and their satisfaction working with their coaches at 4.85/5.” That certainly seems like a good sign.

It’s worth noting that, representing the Google-funded Fund for Equity in Local News, Woods has come out strongly against the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA). That law, if passed, would require Google to start paying news publishers “for linking Californians to news articles,” in the words of The Verge.

Writes Woods, “Losing Google as a funder and support partner, not to mention the ability to connect with audiences through Google Search, would be devastating to local publishers.” 

LION’s Executive Director wrote to the California legislature to speak against the CJPA legislation. INN does not seem to have taken a position on the bill, although we've sent them a request to let us know.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.