The Google County Times: The Future of Local News?

Like a newspaper, but on your face
Coming soon to a Glass headset near you: News from just down the block (AP/Darryl Dyck)

Google has hatched a plan to boost the visibility of its existing local news product, and in the process is testing a whole new way to get people to pay attention to the news that is geographically most relevant to them.

Google is testing a local news "card" in its Google Now service, which is built into all new Android smartphones and is available on the iPhone through Google's Search app. Google Now is a logical vehicle for local news because one of its primary functions is knowing where you are and providing information that is "contextually relevant" to you, as specified by your interests, the time of day, and your location.

This beta test has not been previously disclosed, and is currently being carried out solely within Google itself, but its existence was revealed to me last week in an interview with Johanna Wright, vice president of search and assist at Google.

"One thing we're testing right now is a very local hyper-local news card," says Wright. "Which is really useful--it teaches me things about my neighborhood. For example, I found out Miss Mexico came to my son's school, I saw that [the local] Chipotle was giving out burritos, and someone was stabbed in the park near my house. It's very, very targeted to you and your interests."

Wright said that Google's new local news product is only live in an "experimental version." Typically, she adds, "We do A/B tests [of versions of Google web services], trying to get feedback from people in the market."

It's not clear whether or not Google will roll out a local news card for Google Now to the wider public, but if preliminary testing continues to go well, it seems likely. Presently, local news is not listed as one of the types of cards available on Google Now.="#tab=nearby-events">

Profiting from local news is the one nut that no web or media company has been able to crack--not NBC with its doomed EveryBlock, the Guardian with its failed Guardian Local, nor even deep-pocketed AOL, with its "limping" Patch. This has led some to observe that local news may simply never be a profit center for any company. Which is why Google is perhaps the perfect company to own this space, since Google is just an aggregator anyway--and now we know that Google has designs on enhancing the visibility of its existing (but little-known) local news product.

Putting local news in context could make it relevant in a way that simply dumping it on a site that people have to remember to go to might never. It transforms local news into a push medium, since Google Now is constantly deciding which cards to preemptively display to people, in a process known internally on the Google Now team as "triggering."

Google News is run by algorithms, but even algorithms have the editorial priorities of their creators built into them. Does this mean Google Now is about to become an expression of Google's increasing civic-mindedness, alerting us to the same kinds of important (but easily overlooked) local news about courts, politics and ordinances that regional newspapers once covered? That depends entirely on whether the local news sites from which Google News draws its content continue to cover those issues--but at least now, they could have more visibility.

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Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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