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As Local Media Dies, Google Pilots A Program For Unpaid Citizen Journalists

The search giant wants to solve a problem it helped create.

As Local Media Dies, Google Pilots A Program For Unpaid Citizen Journalists
[Photo: Michael Ramey /Unsplash]

The Holy Grail for large tech companies is capitalizing on local communities. Facebook has long talked about its focus on connecting people and promoting content that is important to individual communities. Meanwhile, the very idea of local media–be it blogs or newspapers whose sole purpose was to report on the small yet important happenings in certain regions–has fallen by the wayside. Gothamist and DNAInfo were abruptly shuttered by their billionaire owner; alternative weeklies like the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly are shells of their former selves.

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As local outlets continue to falter, it can feel like locally aimed content has no place in an online environment where publishers need to attract huge audiences. Google, however, is working on a project that aims to tackle this problem. Called “Bulletin,” the program would ostensibly make it easy for any person in a community to document a local happening. Users can take a picture and write a few paragraphs about it, and then with the click of a button on a webpage, share the story however they wish. It appears to be something of a scaled-down content management system, but one that anyone can use and then easily promote to the community.

According to Slate, which first caught wind of the project, Bulletin seems to be “aimed at amateur journalists or anyone else who wants to live-blog a news event or report a news story in a way that has a chance to reach a broad audience.” At a presentation in Nashville (one of the first communities piloting the project), a Google project manager explained that these stories written on Bulletin, when they go live, will be searchable on search engines and may even have the chance to be picked up by local publishers.

There’s a perverse irony about Bulletin. The project is focused on creating an easy space for local people to share important events that would otherwise be overlooked–be it a local basketball game, city council meeting, or a crime that was documented and needs to be shared. This is not some new idea. In fact, it has existed for decades in the form of local blogs, newspapers, and entire media companies whose sole purpose was to serve smaller communities.

And yet many of these forays have died thanks to the shifting economics of online media. This is an outcome that was hastened, if not entirely caused, by Google and Facebook’s continued control over the digital advertising marketshare—and to a smaller extent, platforms like Yelp, which now attract local business advertisers that once put their dollars in local newspapers.

Now, as local reporting dies, the tech giants that helped got us to where we are want to build ways for the void to be filled–in this case, via unpaid participants. And, of course, this content would feed back to the platforms that killed local independent media in the first place.

Currently, Bulletin is being trialled in Nashville and Oakland. You can read the full writeup in Slate here.

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About the author

Cale is a Paris-based reporter. He writes about many things.

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