February 14, 2018 | by Alexian Chiavegato

Armed with Google Bulletin and Smartphones, Citizen Journalists Are Born

Google is rolling out an experimental app—a progressive web app, in fact—that will empower anyone, anywhere to publish community news directly from a smartphone to the web, where the news stories will automatically be placed on Google search. Google Bulletin promises an “effortless” way for amateur reporters to publish “hyperlocal stories,” complete with video and photos, and become “the voice of your community.” Google is currently testing the lightweight app in two cities, Nashville, TN, and Oakland, CA.

Google’s new tool for spotlighting local news follows the path of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which already offer users a place to publish their own stories. Compared to the limited reach of social networks, however, the power of Google search offers Bulletin users a much broader audience. “For people without a large following, even a newsworthy tweet or YouTube video can fall flat,” as Slate notes, while the idea that anyone can be a journalist becomes “more of a reality than a myth” with Google Bulletin.

This initiative certainly has the potential to inspire positive change by fostering individualistic thinking, empowering self expression, and improving the accuracy of news reports. On the surface, it seems to be a project imbued with core web 2.0 ideals: connecting people around the world and fostering individual voices.

This lofty goal ties back to Google’s original mission statement, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This goal is also echoed in many ways by Facebook’s “Building Global Community” initiative, and shows that Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism is alive and well.

With that said, citizen journalism brings with it a series of ethical and practical challenges that Google will have to resolve as the project grows. For example, citizen journalists are not beholden to certain ethical rules that publishing houses are. Without publishers to provide fact-checking and editing, and without professional discipline, there’s a danger that community reports might spread misinformation—a significant risk in the age of fake news.

Despite this possibility, if the Bulletin initiative does take off, it could result in true paradigm shifts in the way that news agencies and newspaper collect their information. Could this wealth of hyperlocalized content represent a great opportunity for local publishers? Or could it, in fact, have a detrimental effect, whereby Bulletin becomes the go-to for local news? How might results from Bulletin appear in Google’s search results? As the product evolves, we will also observe any wider impact on the news industry in general.

It may be new, but the Bulletin idea bears an uncanny resemblance to Twitter in its early days. As the initiative grows, it will be interesting to learn how user participation is incentivized. Also, a more in-depth exploration of the Bulletin product will reveal how—if at all—the platform could be monetized. Could hyperlocalized news mean opportunities for hyperlocalized ads?

As an aside, the Bulletin project lends itself perfectly as a showcase for the huge potential of progressive web app technology. The simplicity, multitude of native features, and lightweight nature of PWAs mean that citizen journalists can bypass the work of creating personal websites or blogs, instead creating content-rich articles quickly and easily with nothing more than a smartphone.