Apparently Google (GOOG) thinks its knows something about local news everybody else doesn’t.
What that is, though, remains a mystery.
The search engine giant is reportedly testing a local news “card” in its Google Now service available on both Android phones and the Apple (AAPL) iPhone. Media reports are already gushing. As The Atlantic put it:
“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.”
That sounds great in theory, but there is just one problem: People don’t know what they want.
Sure, people may say they care about their local communities. But in reality, they don’t want to be bothered to perform even simple civic duties like … say … voting. Many people — myself included — don’t know the names of their local, county and state officials. And the names of local Congressmen and Senators probably don’t roll off the tongues of many citizens.
The reason is simple: Most people find politics — which makes up the bulk of local news — boring. And they have better things to do then attend school-board and city-council meetings.
Heck, when I worked as a newspaper reporter earlier in my career, I attended scads of them. Most were dull as hell. A few were tortuous. One time, I counted the tiles in the ceiling to prevent myself from falling asleep, which happened from time to time.
Of course, hyper-local sites could, in theory, be useful conduits for crime news — something The Atlantic piece nods to. But police departments are tech-savvy these days, sending news quickly via cell phones and email. Unless these sites have dogged reporters, the odds are slim that they are going to give their readers anything different.
Overall, I find Google’s new-found passion for hyper-local news quite puzzling. And it’s not just these small reasons, but their sum: That it’s been tried before many, many times … and has been a dismal failure.
The most high-profile example of hyper-local new’s struggles is AOL‘s (AOL) five-year-old Patch service. As Bloomberg News recently noted, the service faces a “do-or-die year” in 2013 as Wall Street has grown inpatient waiting for the business to make money.
According to Bloomberg’s calculations, Patch will need to double its sales — which were about $32 million last year — to be profitable. Patch is already trying to slash costs; every few weeks there seems to reports of layoffs at the business. In order for Patch to survive, it may have to shrink further. But surviving won’t be easy. Other companies, like The Guardian, have tried and also failed.
One reason is that hyper-local coverage by nature appeals to a small audience. Unfortunately, that means it’s also too small for local advertisers. Most local businesses — such as car-dealers and restaurants — want to attract customers beyond the geographical boundaries of their particular towns.
Patch’s other problem is that it’s dull and amateurish. One story headlined “Mom Treats Well-Behaved Kids to Rita’s Water Ice” was mocked — deservedly so — by the Romenesko website popular with journalists. How is that news?
Perhaps Google has figured out the “secret sauce” to making money at hyper-local coverage, but I seriously doubt it.
As of this writing, Jonathan Berr did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.