An announcement from Google on Friday that it has added a feature called “News Near You” to the mobile version of its news platform isn’t that surprising; the regular web version of Google News has had a similar feature since 2008. But the move is another step toward offering news that is personally relevant to readers, something newspapers and other media outlets continue to struggle with. As more people consume news and other content on mobile devices, location is becoming a bigger part of the picture, but most traditional news entities are stuck on the desktop.
The idea behind the new Google News mobile feature is pretty simple. You allow the service to use your location — which your iPhone or Android device already knows, thanks to GPS and cellular network triangulation — and then Google selects from stories of interest that are close to you geographically. You can also do the same kind of selection by topic you would with the regular desktop interface, but the location aspect adds another dimension to the news.
From the descriptions I’ve seen, it works fairly well (I haven’t been able to try it because I live in Canada and the feature isn’t available here yet), although in some cases there may be no real news from the locations closest to you — and, of course, you have to be comfortable sharing your location, which some people may not be for privacy reasons.
Not everyone is going to want to filter their news by location, but I can see this being a pretty compelling service in some cases, such as when you happen to arrive in a new city or town and are looking for news about wherever you find yourself. There is no easy way to do this currently. It’s true you can go to the website of the local newspaper or other media outlet (if you can think of one), but then you’ll see only their news. Google’s feature gives you news from all kinds of different sources, including blogs.
Theoretically at least, AOL’s hyper-local Patch project could become a powerful source of local news for Google and any other platform that wants to focus on location. All that is really required is to have stories or blog posts geo-tagged properly.
This is one largely technical reason why some newspapers haven’t been able to take advantage of location so far. Most “content management systems” of the kind that news entities use — for publishing both their web content and their printed content — simply don’t make it easy to tag things with a location, or to do so in a format that works well with location-based services such as Foursquare (which did a small joint venture with the Toronto-based version of the Metro International free paper last year).
But even more than that, while some larger news entities may have gotten accustomed to dealing with specific locations, in terms of having “neighborhood” editions or regional pages (or web editions such as the New York Times experiment The Local , or the failed Loudoun Extra project launched by the Washington Post), most newspapers and other outlets have never really thought about their readers moving around much, or how that would affect their use of the news or interest in specific topics. News outlets have typically thought of their readers as being rooted in the ground, and thereby captive audiences.
As anyone with a smartphone or an iPad knows, that’s no longer the case for many people. Thanks to ubiquitous connectivity and smart digital devices, they can consume news and content wherever they might be, and in some cases that is going to be locally-specific content. Google is prepared for that future, but are other news outlets?