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Google has a local news problem

Page views are dollars and Google is robbing your local newspaper to pay a few big, national news outlets.

Consider a few assertions that lean toward fact:

  1. The dominant subsidy model supporting digital news is programmatic advertising.
  2. Advertising revenue requires page views and visits, the more the better.
  3. Google (and Facebook and a few others) are the lifeblood of digital traffic for most news organizations.
  4. Google is very, very good at “collecting eyeballs” and very, very bad at redistributing that time, attention and ad revenue equitably to local news organizations.

That last point merits discussion, and with a major hurricane headed toward my former home state, I tweeted a prime example this week:

The top sources pictured are The New York Times, The (UK) Independent, USA Today, Al Jazeera and Fox News. Who is missing? Almost every news outlet that is actually based in North or South Carolina. (Full disclosure: I initially overlooked a few links to WTVD-TV in Raleigh within the results.)

So is The Independent and Al Jazeera, or The (Raleigh) News and Observer and the Wilmington (NC) Star-News, better positioned to cover the impact of Florence on North Carolina?

Is there any argument? Local media have more staff on the ground, better sources, a deeper knowledge of the community and a broader perspective on both the current and past natural disasters in the area.

“What we’re seeing here is a failure of the algorithm to quantify and incorporate the news value of proximity.” — Nick Diakopolous via Twitter.

Unfortunately, Google News traditionally favors national outlets like The New York Times and USA Today. It is true for hurricanes, and it is true for many other stories with a specifically local impact.

As a result, visitors and page views for news coverage being admirably produced by small and medium-sized newsrooms are inevitably diverted to larger national brands that, in some cases, are simply republishing wire stories.

Google’s algorithms were not available for comment (and are a closely guarded secret) but we know broadly that Google News search results are based on signals including popularity, timeliness, the reputation of the news outlet and the outlet’s volume of coverage on a topic.

But most of those measures immediately disadvantage local newsrooms. The New York Times will always get more clicks, have a higher ‘reputation’ score in Google and may have hundreds of daily stories — compared to the Wilmington paper’s dozens.

Nick Diakopoulos, who is an expert on algorithmic accountability and data journalism weighed in on Twitter to diagnose the issue. “What we’re seeing here is a failure of the algorithm to quantify and incorporate the news value of proximity.”

Source location (proximity to the story) is known to be a factor in Google News, but any search for Hurricane Florence this week shows it is not particularly effective. And every click that Google sends to Business Insider for aggregating coverage from wire services and social media is a lost page view for the News and Observer whose staff will soon be waist deep in flood waters covering the storm.

Google knows they can do better, but for whatever reason — technical complexity or cost or lack of urgency — they have yet to.

Publishers understandably feel the urgency more acutely. A million “lost page views” over a few days could translate into $30,000 in ad revenues. That is a meaningful number to local newsrooms.

So, my opening argument, that Google is ‘robbing local newspapers’ may be a bit hyperbolic. But it is true. Google’s search algorithm is effectively so biased against local news sources that it inflicts an unfair financial penalty on local journalism.

Google, please fix this.

Disclaimer: Until February I was the Director of Product for McClatchy, owner of newspapers in Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham, North Carolina and Myrtle Beach and Columbia, South Carolina.

Also published on Medium