‘Understanding the Reader’ and the Bottom Line: Do They Connect?

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Google Now mobile appGoogle’s beta testing of aggregated community news for its recently launched smartphone app Now (“the right information at just the right time”) got some big “hmmm” headlines last week. I was especially intrigued by Quartz’s interview with Johanna Wright, vice president of search and assist at Google, who said:

“One thing we’re testing right now is a very local hyperlocal news card. 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.”

Was this Google experiment bringing any fear and trembling to community news and information sites, I wondered. Here are reactions I received:

Denise Civiletti, co-founder and editor of the Riverhead LOCAL in Suffolk County, Long Island:
“Our loyal readership won’t be satisfied with headlines and tidbits of local news that’s important to them — it’s too important to them. They are engaged with and concerned about the community they live in, just as we are. We live here. Our children’s education, the value of our home, the property taxes we pay, our quality of life — our very future: it’s all about Riverhead. And that’s why we produce local news other locals value — the very heart of customer/reader loyalty.

“We don’t have a mobile app and have no plans to create one. We also have no plans to become an aggregator. If my website had to be reduced to aggregation to remain a viable business entity, frankly, I’d find another way to make a living. But that ain’t gonna happen.”

Mike Shapiro, founder, editor and publisher of the 15-site Alternative Press in suburban New Jersey:
“There is a growing void in original local news content, the kind of content that is being produced every day here at TheAlternativePress.com.  We do not fear Google Now. It will create an ever-expanding distribution channel for our original local news content. We are agnostic as to the platform our readers want to receive and view our news content on. We welcome Google’s technology in possibly expanding the readership of TAP’s high-quality, objective local news.

Bryan Gess, operations director, Courier Publications/Village Soup in Midcoast Maine:
I am surprised it has taken Google so long to add this feature to its mobile app. The app is still just algorithms scraping content that it believes the user would like to read. I believe that as long as the true community news source never loses focus on its community and make sure that it is giving them what they want, Google will not be able to outdo the true community news source.”

Patch co-founder Warren Webster:
“Producers of local content should welcome any new technology that makes the discovery of original local content easier. More and more services are looking for local content to make them useful, and that’s a great thing for the owners of that content, like Patch.  Also at Patch, mobile product development continues to be a key strategic focus.”

Susan Mernit, founder/CEO/editor of The Oakland Local:
“Google is Oakland Local’s top search referrer. If this news means Google is going to improve its indexing of our original content, updated 3-5 times a day, so more readers can access it, that sounds great. Trying to own one URL to herd readers in this day and age makes no sense – but quality indexing of content and consistent #hashtags make a lot of sense.”

So no fear and trembling. But I wonder if community sites couldn’t learn from Google Now and adopt their own version of the app’s motto — “the right information at just the right time.” I don’t mean a minute-by-minute chronicling of the news; more something like the New York Times’ recently added homepage promotion: “What You Need to Know for [day in the week] in N.Y.”

Jeff Bezos echoed this keen awareness of serving information-saturated users when he said in his letter about his purchase of the Washington Post: “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about.”

Will sites that understand what their readers care about help the bottom line? There’s no business model for community news that’s chiseled in stone. But I think Bezos’ words are the next best thing.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.