Google has long been a favorite scapegoat of the troubled news industry. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch famously accused the search titan of stealing from media outlets by drawing users to its aggregation service, Google News, and away from those sites' home pages. New sites often dismiss Google's claims that it helps them by driving traffic to their articles.
Now, early results from Microsoft Research New England suggest that news aggregators like Google News increase visits to local news sites—providing they highlight local news stories. The issue is particularly important at a time when many newspapers are trying to end the practice of giving away news for free.
Like it or not, aggregators play a significant role. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Google News is responsible for as much as 30 percent of the traffic that goes to the top 25 news sites. As such, it's a force that can't be ignored, and the Microsoft researchers wanted to assess how aggregators actually affect local news sites.
Local news outlets have struggled, particularly online, an environment that's increasingly oriented toward a global audience. For every local news experiment, such as Steven Berlin Johnson's blog service Outside.in or AOL's Patch network, there seems to be another closed newspaper, such as the Honolulu Advertiser, or signs of trouble such as those that inspired the Christian Science Monitor to move to a mostly online format. Those local news experiments online haven't done very well to date. Johnson sold Outside.in to AOL for less than $10 million. Local news sites covered by Technology Review in the past, including YourStreet and Platial, have folded or suffered long-term financial difficulties.