The Industry

Google Is Testing a New App That Would Let Anyone Publish a Local News Story

Nashville's skyline.
Nashville is one of two cities that gets to test Google’s new journalism toy. iStock/Thinkstock

Google is testing a new tool for people to report and publish local news stories, called Bulletin.

A website first spotted online Thursday describes Bulletin as “an app for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone.” It’s designed to make it “effortless” to tell “the stories that aren’t being told” via your smartphone. It’s not just for techie early adopters: “If you are comfortable taking photos or sending messages, you can create a Bulletin story!”, the site says.

The app is in a “limited pilot” in just two cities: Nashville and Oakland.

Google confirmed the project Friday morning. “This is very much in the testing phase and aimed at hyperlocal stories and events for people to share, and for local media to take advantage of,” spokeswoman Maggie Shiels told me. “People everywhere want to know what is going on in their own backyard at a very local level, ranging from local bookstore readings to high school sporting events to information about local street closures.”

Sami Cone, an author and blogger, reported via Twitter that she had been invited to Google’s announcement of the new tool in Nashville on Thursday. (Hat tip: Stefan Constantinescu*.) She published a blog post and a smartphone video of the launch event on YouTube.

The announcement appears to have flown entirely under the radar of the national media and tech press—perhaps illustrating a point that Google hoped to make. Both Oakland and Nashville have burgeoning tech industries and are Google Fiber cities. But they also have high poverty rates and lie beyond the klieg lights of the big media hubs.

A Google spokesman at the Nashville launch event, whom Google identified to me as product manager James Morehead, described Bulletin in the video as a progressive web app—a website that looks and functions like an app. “Creating a website, creating a blog is a pretty high bar for a lot of people,” he said. So a team of designers at Google asked the following, he said:

What if it was effortless to capture these stories publicly from our smartphones? What if it was possible to publish them instantly to the web without having to do any setup? And what if it was accessible to anyone in our community. So, not just the people we know—there are excellent tools for connecting content to people we know. But connecting content to people we know and to people we don’t know but who share a particular interest. That’s what we’re trying to do with Bulletin.

It sounds like a super-lightweight content management system, aimed at amateur journalists or anyone else who wants to live-blog a news event or report a news story in a way that has a chance to reach a broad audience. Examples from the presentation included “extraordinary volunteers,” “high school sports,” “weather events,” “civic meetings,” and “social justice,” among others. An app screenshot on the Google Bulletin site shows a post with the headline, “Winter storm floods river, wipes out Nelson Road.”

Morehead said the company will work with local news organizations to help them find and potentially publish some of those stories, giving credit to their authors. The author controls the content and can take it down anytime they want.

It’s hard to say without more information how useful this will prove. But it’s part of a trend of the big tech platforms beginning to look at how they can help to repair the news economy that they disrupted. Facebook this week began testing in Olympia, Washington, a local news and events page that highlights stories from local media.

A screenshot of the Google Bulletin app, showing a flooded river.
Google’s example of how Bulletin might be used. Google

There’s been a lot of hype over the years about how tools such as Twitter and Facebook mean that anyone can be a journalist. But Google’s tool could make that more of a reality than a myth. It’s true that social media posts can go viral, but that’s usually when they have national or global appeal of some sort. Google appears to be looking for a way to help people publicize worthwhile stories of more modest, local interest, which has not been one of social media’s strong suits. There are also, of course, some risks involved in promoting amateur news reporting. The potential for misinformation is probably higher when the reporters lack professional credentials or a news organization to verify and stand behind their work. It’s unclear what kind of editing, if any, will be a part of the undertaking.

It’s easy to see the need for such a tool, however. For people without a large following, even a newsworthy tweet or YouTube video can fall flat. Just look at Sami Cone, who as far as I can tell had the world exclusive on the launch of Google Bulletin. At the time that I wrote this, her tweets about it had garnered just one like; her YouTube video, 11 views.

*Update, Jan. 26, 2018, at 12:10 p.m.: This post was updated to add confirmation and comment from Google.

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2018, at 12:10 p.m.: This post originally misspelled Stefan Constantinescu’s last name.