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Will Mobile Devices Usher in a Renaissance in Local News?

Tell you where I am and tell me what matters...Part 5 of 5:

Could the decline of local newspapers be a prelude to a renaissance in local news? In recent posts, I’ve looked at a social enterprise approach to local news and the role social networks could play. In this last post in the series, I focus on the impact of mobile technology.

Google Nearby News

The catalyst for this series was the announcement in May that Google News was rolling out news near you” for your phone. Looking at it today, there’s not much to see. It still requires that you tell it your zip code rather than determining that automatically from your GPS location. It’s also overly reliant on local newspaper feeds; you have to know to adjust your Google News settings to get news from blogs, which is where a lot of the more interesting, hyper-local news comes from these days.

With that said, a look at Google+ on your mobile device offers a hint where local information is headed. When you click “Nearby” on your stream of updates on your phone in Google+, you just see posts from people near you. It’s still sort of flaky, and most of what you’ll find are “here I am” and “just testing this out” kinds of messages, but it’s just getting started and I’m optimistic the supply of valuable information will expand over time as people become more used to tagging the things around them with their mobile devices.

Facebook and Google Going Local

Google has made a killing in “contextual advertising,” which today takes the form of Google’s AdSense technology looking at the words on a web page in order to determine why a user is there and then mapping that topical context to appropriate ads.

The rise of mobile computing brings a new type of context to center stage – the context of place.

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
– Mark Zuckerberg

Locational context will prove every bit as important as topical context when it comes to commerce and advertising. Google and Facebook know this and are gearing up to grab a big chunk of local advertising dollars with Google Places and Facebook Places. So far, both services are squarely focused on a shopping-centric user experience. And while buying goods and services accounts for a large part of what we do in our free time when we’re mobile, it’s not all we do. After all, we are far more than just consumers.

There are lots of situations when the context of where I am prompts me to seek other types of information. What’s the history of this old building? What’s the latest information on that new construction project a few blocks from my home? What kind of relationship does this bank have with my community? What are my local transit authority’s plans for this bus line?

Not all of this information is “news,” strictly speaking; some of it blurs into Wikipedia-like reference, some into the personal experiences of people who live and work around you. All of it is local, though, and some of that information could have a very large impact on your life.

Local Blogging is a Tough Business Today

One of the things the local paper did do quite effectively was aggregate demand for local news. You didn’t buy individual articles about your neighborhood; you bought a whole paper about your city – and that helped ensure a large enough audience to be interesting to advertisers. The first phase of the web –  before mobile Internet – essentially erased geography, and in so doing, unbundled the delivery of local news.

It’s hard to make real money running a local blog today. That’s because local blogs lack the ability to aggregate the kind of large audiences that local papers did when they were dropped on our doorstep each morning. And without lots of readers, it’s hard to make money.

What we need now is a new approach to aggregating readers of local news and information. That new approach is the mobile device in your pocket or purse, and Google, Facebook, Yelp, and foursquare are hard at work laying some of that infrastructure to put it to use. The question is: how might it evolve into something beyond just a consumer experience?

Place is a Tag

There’s little doubt in my mind that the new local shopping and commerce services will stimulate a critical mass of demand for local information, or that the “Near Me” feeds and slices on Google+ and Google News will help broaden that demand beyond just a shopping context. To sustain readers’ interest, however, demand for local news and information must be matched by supply.

Local blogs will be one important source for a newly expanded supply of local news and information. Once mobile services develop more location-aggregated demand, local blogs will provide a critical supply of editorial inventory for display advertising. Google is growing its display advertising capacity and just passed Yahoo as the leader in online display advertising. They know the local papers once held a huge piece of display advertising – it’s only a matter of time before building local display inventory becomes a bigger priority. Facebook knows this too – and this will eventually translate into good news for local blogging sites.

Blogs will be important, but it’s my belief that the biggest source of local information will be the accretion of millions of small posts, tags and comments that we will soon be mapping onto our physical surroundings.

In a future post, I’ll go into a bit more detail on what’s happening in geo-tagging information and some new ideas for organizing that kind of information. The point here though, is that social networks will play a big role in engaging people in using geo-tags to tag local news and information by place. It’s roughly analogous to the way social networks enable people to use hashtags to tag information today on Twitter by topic.

Information networking” is the process of connecting information – connecting it to people and to other information. It’s how we layer context on information. With the rise of the mobile Internet, place is just one of those layers – just one of those tags.

Want some examples?

  • I read a story about my local transit authority cutting service on five bus lines. Now I go out and geo-tag this story to each bus stop on those lines, so that more people who actually rides these buses actually hear this news.
  • The local planning department announces it’s plan on that development down the street from my house. I geo-tag that little announcement that would have been otherwise buried, and now all my neighbors see that news when they walk by the site.

Am I writing news in these scenarios? Am I blogging it? No. But I am networking it – connecting it with valuable locational context.

Over time, as I gain confidence, I may expand my tagging to include some of my own opinions and additional information that I happen to know about these issues, as someone who lives near their points of contact with my world. This is the gradual deepening of engagement I talked about with the “news engagement pyramid.”

Click “Here” for News

We’re going to get lots more local information as our Internet experience becomes increasingly mobile.

Will that information stream consist entirely of Groupon offers, Yelp reviews and foursquare checkins? Or will we also get information to help us understand what’s really happening in the places we live and work? Will it just be information to help us buy more stuff? Or will it also include information that helps us build true quality of life?

The answer to that question ultimately rests in each of our hands – quite literally today. When we use our phone to click on Groupon, we get more Groupon. When we use it to click on local news, we get more local news.

What we click is what we get.


Part 1:   The Information Needs of Communities
Part 2:   The Great Unbundling and Collapse of Local Newspapers
Part 3:   Social Enterprise and the Renaissance of Local News
Part 4:   Social Networks and the Renaissance of Local News
Part 5:   Mobile Computing and the Renaissance of Local News

Image modified from original by Puzzler4879.