Last week it was revealed Google was launching a new app called Bulletin. Here’s the basic product description from The Next Web’s story:
(It) lets anyone publish a news story just by blogging and sharing images and video straight from their phone through the platform’s mobile app – without the need to create an outlet of their own. The idea is to highlight stories from within communities, by making them visible through Google search. That’ll likely boost Google’s own News service and make it more relevant to people who are looking for information about what’s happening around them.
So, just to be clear: Google is launching an app that allows anyone to contribute stories, primarily about their community, that will then be part of Google News. That ties nicely into an initiative the company launched a few months ago where local news would be displayed more prominently, one it positioned as an attempt to help inform citizens of local events and happenings.
It’s hard to completely wrap my head around what a bad idea this is for many parties, but let me try.
It’s Bad for The People Contributing
Nowhere in the news about Bulletin does it mention anything about how the people posting those stories might benefit in any way. Let’s assume that contributors will have profiles that will show who they are, what community they live in and what stories they’ve published. That’s fine, but what else? They become part of some kind of feed of updates that’s essentially anonymous and transfers no name recognition value to them.
There’s also no mention of any sort of compensation that might occur so let’s also assume that everyone is contributing for free. You know that even if ads aren’t part of the wide rollout, Google will sell advertising on Bulletin to local businesses that want to reach a highly relevant targeted audience. It doesn’t seem as if the people actually creating that content will see any of that. Contributors may feel some satisfaction from having shared interesting or important information, but that’s it.
It’s Bad For The Open Web
What Google is doing here could 100% have been done without asking people to participate in a whole new platform they have no control over and can’t monetize or benefit from themselves. Local bloggers could have been asked to submit their sites to a system that curated posts and then presented an RSS-like feed that sent traffic back to those individual blogs, which the owners would be free to do with what they will.
That kind of solution would have not only allowed for sources to be better vetted (something that’s unclear in the write-ups about Bulletin) since they would have to be reviewed for inclusion and been good for the long-term health of the open web. Unfortunately this is Google continuing to adopt the Facebook mindset that links are bad and content needs to exist only within a closed ecosystem it manages itself.
It’s Bad For Local Media
You know how the demise of local media has been driven largely by the increased power of the Google/Facebook duopoly, which sucks up almost all online advertising spending? Google, like its competitor-partner, has now officially moved from playing Ivan Drago (“If he dies, he dies.”) to Al Capone (“I want him dead. I want his family dead…”). This isn’t just letting market forces do their work and hey, if we provide a better alternative than your local newspaper that’s not our fault. It’s taking an active role in the demise of that media by enlisting an army of unpaid creators to produce content that can then by monetized in some fashion.
Hyper-local media has always been a tough nut to crack, at least at scale, because the issue of money always comes up. Outlets like Patch and others have struggled at times because they’re not bringing in enough revenue (it’s all going to Facebook and Google) to maintain site infrastructures much less pay writers or others more than a few bucks per article. Those problems are only going to get worse if the competition is Google in a much more direct way.
It’s Just Bad
I might be wrong. There might be nuances and details to Bulletin that haven’t been included in the coverage to date that make it much more of an attractive option and a value-add to the overall online and mobile landscape. At first blush, though, this seems like Google wanting to corner the market on local media in an intentionally harmful way. I’ll be pleased if I’m mistaken.
I’m a proponent of the idea of local, citizen journalists. You want to encourage that, great, you have my support. This isn’t that. There are already countless people in every neighborhood running blogs and social network profiles offering that kind of coverage, most of them doing so out of passion more than anything else. Tapping into that passion and developing a system to showcase and reward it would have been welcome.
Instead we’re seeing Google adopt the same platform mentality so many other companies have. That was true when it shut down Google Reader in favor of trying to prop up Googlel+ (or any of the various non-RSS news reading apps it’s tried to launch over the years, almost all of which have folded) and now it’s true here.
For an initiative that purports to be focused on communities, it’s ignorant of the fact those communities already exist. But because they aren’t natively owned, they aren’t of any value, apparently.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.