Local news gets competition from YouTube

A new generation of local television news broadcasters — including ones without FCC licenses — is emerging on YouTube as the popular online video site promotes its “News Near You” feature.

Newspapers, radio stations, universities, churches and advocacy groups are usurping the traditional video turf of local television stations on YouTube in an effort to define the future of television news. Already claiming to be “the biggest news platform in the world,” YouTube now sees the opportunity to become a major distributor of local television news.

Started this spring, YouTube’s News Near You module harnesses the Internet address of a visitor’s computer to determine the user’s location and whether any of YouTube’s local news providers are located within a 100-mile radius. If so, seven days of local videos are automatically displayed.

As the number of local news providers increases, YouTube will make the geographic radius smaller. So far, about 5 percent of YouTube’s users see at least one local news story. As it grows, YouTube will be able to create a local newscast on the fly. It’s already doing this with national news, creating a 30-minute national daily newscast from its content creators.

Google, YouTube’s owner, is now transforming print news by aggregating articles and selling ads against them. A Dow Jones executive recently termed Google a “digital vampire” that was “sucking the blood” from newspapers by harvesting free articles.

Now, Google has targeted local television using its YouTube video service. The company argues that it is helping local TV stations by creating a new source of revenue for them. Though that revenue is now very small, TV stations that sign on could use YouTube as a free method to extend its local audience and news brand throughout the world.

But many TV stations are wary of Google and YouTube and don’t see an easy path to making significant profits from the Internet. Station owners are not sure whether YouTube is a friend or foe, and many don’t see any value from being featured on YouTube. They also fear that YouTube could easily become their competitor over time.

For smaller news providers without an FCC license, YouTube has opened new doors that could democratize television news and offer an alternative from the standard TV diet of police reports, fires and homicides.

This summer YouTube invited 25,000 news sources on Google News to become video suppliers for News Near You. In San Francisco, three friends who despise today’s local television news, did just that. They created VidSF to challenge local broadcasters.

“We were inspired to start VidSF when we noticed our peers were no longer watching local TV news,” the trio said on its Web site. “Its style continues to stagnate, and its content is no longer relevant to our daily lives.”

VidSF offers a variety of local news programming on San Francisco area events, culture and nightlife on YouTube as well as its own Web site. Kieran Farr, a founder of VidSF who created a TV station in college, now drives a taxi three days a week to support himself and VidSF’s video servers.

News Near You has some big name players as well. Videos appear from ABC News, The Associated Press, Reuters and newspapers including the “New York Times,” the “Dallas Morning News” and the “Cincinnati Enquirer.” The “New York Times” has championed YouTube as an outlet for its video. The newspaper has posted more than 1300 video stories so far.

To date, about 200 news providers have signed on to YouTube’s local effort. They split the revenue from the advertising that appears with their stories.

Whether or not television stations embrace News Near You, the new service opens a big door to “citizen journalists” who do not report the news for a living. Many of the stories are amateur and not professionally produced, but they open the doors to content otherwise unavailable.

Iran is a good example. As protests continue there and professional reporters are mostly absent, Iranian citizens are able to provide much of the spot video from breaking news in that turbulent country.

Apple’s new iPhone also includes a video recording capability with a “Send to YouTube” button, making it easy for owners to upload news clips. YouTube said it is developing tools to automatically spotlight those amateur videos as they come in.

YouTube’s local news effort poses additional competition for already suffering local television stations. For many broadcasters, the poor economy has resulted in a significant loss of revenue this year. Loss of advertising from auto sales has been especially significant.

As a result, these stations have cut their news staffs to the bone and many are pooling news resources with other local stations. The last thing they need or want now is new competition.