Local news? There's an app for that
As Google tests out Bulletin, a new free, public app for hyperlocal news stories, the media industry is left to wonder how it could impact the fading focus on local news.
“Be the voice of your community,” the tagline for Google’s new Bulletin app, makes clear its appeal and purpose. Anyone can answer that call to find, create, and, most importantly, share a story with a captive audience. With its sleek but straightforward format, Bulletin's goal is to make it easier than ever for regular citizens to write and post visual and written journalism, instead of having to go through the more difficult process of creating and marketing an individual blog or web page.
Currently launching in a pilot test phase in Nashville, Tennessee and Oakland, CA, the full impact of Bulletin remains to be seen. But given its model and stated purpose it seems to aim to do no less than transform local journalism, melding the easy accessibility of social media with the clear definition and presentation of a professionally organized and run website.
As the Google app’s description says:
“Bulletin is an app for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone. Bulletin makes it effortless to put a spotlight on inspiring stories that aren’t being told.”
But that “effortless” assertion casts a bit of a shadow. The app goes on to define that aspect to mean that “no setup is required to create a story - all you need is a smartphone.”
On the one hand, that’s empowering. Citizens reporting stories about their local community and government, contributing to the free flow of information — what’s not to like? Points for democracy, civic engagement, and local action all round.
The flip-side of that ease is that if less effort is required to produce a story, it’s only logical that less effort will be put into the process than, say, a reported story that goes through multiple rounds of editing — meaning that there will be an increased likelihood of inaccuracies, biases, and even, in those most dubious of terms, “alternative facts" and "fake news." A lack of an editorial process or filter, some in the industry are saying, throws into question the veracity of stories posted on Bulletin.
As Maya Kosoff of Vanity Fair writes on the app's parameters for users:
"Though Bulletin’s guidelines cover harassment and hate speech, they don’t address misinformation—an obvious danger considering that Bulletin’s stories are fed directly to Google Search and Google News, and are intended to be easily shareable."
According to Slate, a Google official at the Nashville launch event said that one goal might be to connect Bulletin authors to area media outlets that would then publish those stories, giving the original writers credit — and presumably imposing their own fact-checking processes on the story before bringing it onto the news platform.
Does Bulletin represent the future of local journalism then? Maybe it’s not as simple as whether Bulletin's content will, or should, replace traditional local journalism. Seen in the context of a dearth of local news coverage nationwide, it's possible that Bulletin won't be a competitor for news organizations so much as a complement to the traditional reporting process.
It could be that the app’s purpose is not to supersede traditional media, or even approach social media’s role in public information dissemination, but rather function as a sort of balancing weight for mainstream media’s attention which, in today’s digital-first business models, is all too often drawn away from the local and focused on the national in an effort to generate more page views, clicks, and, ultimately, revenue.
The name itself suggests what it could be for professional journalists as much as for citizens: a central place to go to and gather local information in the same way a bulletin board at the corner coffee shop, a local newsletter, or a town hall have traditionally been indispensable sources for story ideas for journalists looking to cover a specific area. The app’s webpage allows media members to fill out a form to request access to Bulletin, an indication that the apps designers are contemplating its potential role as a source for reporters to gauge what’s important to community members and what people would like to see covered in a more in-depth, accurate way.
Though the trajectory of the app in terms of its effect on or relationship to the media industry is not immediately defined, the future is — for Bulletin users, at least — waiting to be written.