Thursday, August 6, 2009

YouTube's 'News Near You': Really? Where?

This notion that YouTube will become your one-stop source for local news -- delivered by both professional and "citizen" journalists -- has been getting some attention lately, notably in the New York Times:

YouTube which already boasts of being “the biggest news platform in the world,” has created a News Near You feature that senses a user’s location and serves up a list of relevant videos. In time, it could essentially engineer a local newscast on the fly. It is already distributing hometown video from dozens of sources, and it wants to add thousands more.
But when we checked out its (deservedly) well-hidden "News Near You" feature, which has actually been around for months, we found that it's got a long ways to go.

First, we have to look at the potential merits of such a feature in the first place.

Ideally you'd find a cluster of locally produced videos related to nearby people, places, events, issues. At one end of the spectrum, some might be created by reputable media outlets; but at the other end, others might be generated by PR firms promoting clients who attach reputable-sounding names of ersatz organizations to their videos. (In other words, as with all YouTube endeavours, there's no reliable filter to discern credibility, much less quality.)

In between, you'd find "reports" from an army of "citizen journalists," ranging from semi-pros to rank amateurs. The quality of the visual aesthetics, the storytelling, and of course the journalism itself, can run the gamut.

But let's first ask: why zipcodes? Nowadays, is local news really local? If the Web has taught us anything, it's that our own backyards are bigger and further away and harder to locate than ever before. Sure, we want to know about crime rates and school budgets in our district -- and even what's on local restaurant menus and movie screens. But don't our interests extend beyond physical borders these days?

Who among us is looking online for what our geographic neighbors are doing? And if we can't trust and/or count on our local newspapers and TV stations to get it right, why are we suddenly willing to bank on novices?

OK, that's all hypothetical. Now let's examine the reality of YouTube's program.

First, as with everything on its site, the navigation is a horror -- confusing, complicated, dense, scattered, illogical. Go ahead, try to find this "News Near You" feature on your own.

OK, we'll help. First, find your way to the News section:

Then scroll down to "News Near You."

Here's the joke. In a major metropolitan neighborhood such as Los Angeles -- where presumably there's a lot of news near us -- we recently found only 14 videos, 12 of which were movie reviews and sports outtakes from the Los Angeles Times (e.g. a press conference interview with a skateboarder).

You can almost hear the newsroom conversation:

"What are we supposed to do with these pointless video clips?"

"Ah, throw 'em up on YouTube."

The other 2 were from OCRCRE. What's that? The Orange County Register's Real Estate section -- and they're not videos at all, but rather audio interviews that run while you're staring at an image of a realtor's ad.

Can you spell pathetic?

For all YouTube's bravado about entering (re-building!) the world of journalism, we've so far seen scant evidence of quality videojournalism.

Tellingly, YouTube can barely manage its own press coverage.

If you go to its own Press Room, it indicates that "YouTube's been getting a lot of press! Click here for some highlights."

But its own Media Coverage link takes you to a Web page that hasn't been updated since April 2008 -- sixteen months ago!

If YouTube's version of news serves any purpose, it's to remind us that we should all better appreciate -- and champion -- the efforts of our professionally produced hometown newspapers and TV stations to establish financially stable presences on the Web.

And if that means having to pay small subscription fees to keep them solvent, that's far superior to any of these amateurish automated news aggregation schemes we've seen so far.

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