Newspapers Shouldn’t Own Local Search

15 Jan ’07

Don Dodge says newspapers should own local search. He says they’re ideally positioned to reclaim the revenue they’ve lost from classified competition. I’m cranky today, so just to be obstreperous I’ll disagree.

I get the benefit for newspapers of their being the one-stop shopping destination for local information, but what I don’t understand is why that information ought to be silo’d and disaggregated across presumably (just how “local” is local?) hundreds (thousands? tens of thousands?) of local search sites. Imagine a matrix with one dimension being geography and the other being the particular vertical (cars for sale; restaurant reviews; movie reviews; listings of dentists; and so on). One can think of good reasons for both aggregating and disaggregating both dimensions, with the equilibrium aggregation for any particular cell on the matrix depending on the drivers for that particular case. (Ok, Ok, damn you multi-dimensionalists, imagine a third dimension, too, with that dimension being the nature of the technology used to provide the local search capability – for example, pure search tool, social media site, and so on).

To me this doesn’t sound promising for newspapers, because all of this seems utterly beyond their control. After all, do I want to go to my newspaper’s local search site for information about pet stores or dog-walkers, or do I want to go to Dogster, where I can plug into a technology-created community that will give me local search, but also deep context as well? Or do I just want to Google it, because Google’s my home page and it’s so easy, and ooh, plugged into Google Maps also and hey, cool! I can then download the contact info to my PDA’s address book and see what people are saying about the thing I’m searching for? And what about houses for sale? My local MLS site or a national site like Zillow (when it gets around to it) or a local site at AmericanTowns or my newspaper’s site? And do I particularly care what my newspaper says about local restaurants, or will I prefer what my friends at Chowhound have to say? (Completely gratuitous aside: I recently used an old column by a Toronto restaurant reviewer to help me find lunch in Paris, but I would never use her advice to pick a restaurant in Toronto. How ’bout them apples?)

The problem for newspapers, obviously, is that what used to be an information issue (“what’s going on / where is this thing for sale / what’s a good Italian restaurant / where is the nearest hardware store?”) is becoming a technology issue, and they’re not technologists. It’s not hard to get the data – it’s hard to figure out how to use it. More to the point, if it’s a technology issue, then it presumably – increasingly like everything else that the internet has touched – transcends geography. Which, of course, newspapers don’t. Or if they do, do so while losing any local relevance. And while I’m at it, even if this is an information issue, when were newspapers ever experts about local information? Yes, they publish information, but that makes them publishers / broadcasters of information – not cataloguers / users / deployers of it. And that’s a different skill set, isn’t it? It’s one thing to know how to reach many people with information about a restaurant / home for sale / car for sale / hardware store, but it’s quite another thing to understand how people would like to relate to any particular type of information, and then design a system that brings that particular utility to the market. Fundamentally, at the end of the day publishing / broadcasting is a pretty narrow skill set / utility, and I’m just not sure how it maintains its relevance going forward. One is tempted to say “how quaint – how positively 20th century … and how sad”.

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