Google adds local COVID-19 news coverage to its Google News app in pilot test

Google is piloting a new way to bring local news about the COVID-19 pandemic to its Google News application. In partnership with regional news publications in select cities across the U.S., the Google News app will now offer a dedicated section in select markets detailing critical information like community reopening timelines, business updates, school openings, as well as information on the local healthcare infrastructure, public transportation, events and ways to help families in need.

At launch, the new feature is available for readers in Raleigh, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Columbus, Portland, Cleveland, Myrtle Beach, Albany, Sarasota, Cap Girardeau, Richmond, Memphis, Cincinnati, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

To access the newly added local information, app users will click on the COVID-19 banner, which directs them to the existing section focused on coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. They will then scroll down to find the new “Local news” section directly underneath the “Top news” section.

This new section won’t be shown if the user’s city or town isn’t yet covered. However, you can force the section to display by selecting one of the supported cities and making that your city in the Google News app.

Image Credits: Google

To deliver this local information, Google is working in partnership with 21 news organizations for the supported markets, including Raleigh’s The News & Observer, NOLA.com, CBS Chicago, Oregon Live and Gothamist, among others. The news organizations must already provide this COVID-19 information in the form of short-form content. For example, this page from The News & Observer offers a brief list of updates as bullet points that Google can easily republish to the Local news section of the Google News app.

The app will still allow users to click through to the local publication to read more.

Google tells us that all publishers will have to offer news a similar format to be included for the time being. In other words, Google isn’t automatically creating short-form summaries from news articles to fill this section.

The local COVID-19 news feature is currently in pilot testing, but Google plans to expand coverage across the U.S. and Canada in the future. It also plans to offer the feature outside of the Google News mobile app itself.

To some extent, the addition is a way for Google to offer its own version of Facebook’s “Community Help” feature, which the social network expanded in March due to the COVID-19 crisis. Facebook’s hub today offers a way for users to get information about how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting their own local region and what they can do to help. Google’s feature also arrives at a time when Flipboard has splashed back onto the scene with its new focus on local coverage, including coronavirus updates.

And of course there’s Google News app’s direct rival, the Apple News app. Apple News has also added its own take on local coverage with a “City Guides” section in its own COVID-19 special coverage area. These city guides focus on providing essential knowledge about testing, resources, jobs and more for larger U.S. metros.

In addition to the update to the Google News app, Google says it’s recently expanded access to local news on Search and Google Assistant, as well.

Now when people search for coronavirus information on Google Search, they’ll see both a top stories carousel as well as a new dedicated local news carousel. Google also expanded its new carousel highlighting top tweets from local and health authorities in more than 30 countries.

Meanwhile, users can ask Google Assistant for local coronavirus news by saying something like “Hey Google, play news about coronavirus in Boston,” in select markets.

Google has also financially contributed to local news organizations itself in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, having recently provided emerging funding for over 5,300 local news organizations around the world, ranging from $5,000-$30,000. The company said it expects to spend “tens of millions” through this Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. Plus, Google recently launched a Support Local News campaign to encourage people and businesses to subscribe, donate and advertise across local news outlets in the U.S. and Canada.

 

 

Google ditched tipping feature for donating money to sites

Leaked images obtained by TechCrunch reveal that Google considered and designed a feature that would let people donate money to websites to help support news publishers, bloggers, and musicians. But Google scrapped the idea and chose not to build out the product, despite these kinds of businesses and creators often struggling to earn revenue.

Google’s design for tipping money to The New York Times

Last year, Google explored tipping as a new wing of Google Contributor, a service that lets people pay around 1 cent per page view to remove ads from partnered websites. Screenshots of the tipping feature showed the ability to make one-time donations of $0.20 to $5 to help support sites. “Want to see more content like this on our site? Support with a contribution” one version explained. It’s unclear if Google would have taken the same 10% cut of tips as it does from Contributor ad removal fees. Google mocked up designs for tipping on the sites of the New York Times, Wired, “Tech Crunch” [sic], and more.

If Google had launched the tipping feature, it could have provided a valuable tool to sites battered by the declining display ad market. And now amidst coronavirus lockdowns that have cancelled events and reduced podcast listenership that media publishers rely on for revenue, the ability to accept donations could have helped sites avoid laying off staff. Perhaps Google should consider resurrecting tipping as a more sustainable form of assistance alongside its new Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

Google’s designs for tipping money to news sites

TechCrunch obtained these screenshots from a source that provided evidence that they came directly from Google. When asked, Google confirmed that the designs were of internal idea it explored last year but decided not to pursue as part of Contributor and Google Funding Choices, which lets sites ask visitors to disable ad blockers, or instead buy a subscription or pay a per page fee to remove ads. Google shared the idea with under a handful of publishers in a request for feedback. The company decided to prioritize other products, including a way for sites to request consent to personalize ads using their data amidst strengthened regulations like GDPR.

A Google spokesperson provided TechCrunch with a statement that “We recognize that there isn’t a single business model that works for all publishers today and think it’s critical to explore new technologies that can help publishers make more money. Funding Choices is a great example of a product we have invested in significantly and will continue to evolve to support publishers and their monetization strategies.”

A design for the floating button to be overlaid on websites for making a contribution

In fact, few business models work for publishers at all. With layoffs common across local news, national papers, and digital outlets, publishers could use have used all the help they could get, even if long-term subscriptions would be more lucrative than one-off tips.

Google’s Unlaunched Patronage Feature

Designs for Google’s tipping feature show a floating “Support New York Times” button overlaid at the bottom of the screen as you scroll. Tapping it reveals instructions to “Select an amount below using Google Contributor to help fund this site” with options like $1, $3, or $5.

Google’s designs for tipping on a musician’s website

After choosing one, users log into their Google account if they aren’t already, and then “By clicking ‘Pay now’ you agree that: You will use your Google Payments account to make this one-time payment.” You’re then returned to the page you were viewing, with the button saying “Thank you for your support!” before shrinking to just the Contributor logo.

Google also designed a micropayments version of the feature where users could make smaller donations, such as $0.20. This call to action could be inserted into a static position inside a website. When a user’s contributions totaled $1 or more, they would be billed. They’d also have the option to save their contribution and make it later.

Google’s designs for micropayment tipping to blogs

To drive home the emotional satisfaction of making a donation, this design shows a profile photo of you and tip recipient with a heart in between. Afterwards, a cute cat photo illustration shows a messaging saying “Thanks for the support. Your contribution is saved and we will send a confirmation email” with a cheeky “Purrrrrfect, thanks!” before returning you to the site.

Beyond traditional news sites, Google mocked up the tipping feature for The Points Guy travel advice site, the Spiritual Boss Babe blog, the Miranda Sings musician site, and the Forest Research UK government site. TechCrunch was not aware that Google was using our site in mockups for the tipping feature. Other sites included in the mockups did not respond to inquiries about if they were asked for feedback.

Publishers In Need

Google got into the publisher funding space with Google One Pass in 2011, helping users buy subscriptions to sites before it was shut down a year later. In 2014, Google Contributor launched to let people pay a monthly fee in exchange for ad removal on partnered sites, but that program concluded around the end of 2016.

In 2017, Google relaunched the program with users paying up front to fund a per page view fee for removal, and that program remains active with some publishers. The tech giant also operates Subscribe With Google, which lets people buy and manage publisher subscriptions or fan club entry from their Google account, and then surfaces that site’s content atop related Google searches.

If Google ever chose to revive the tipping feature and taxed it 10% like Contributor, it could create a modest new revenue stream. But more importantly, it could help fuel the creation of the content that fills its News and Search results. It would also allow Google to double-dip, potentially earning money from tips and from the ads users see on those sites.

A tipping feature could be especially helpful for websites that haven’t figured out a premium subscription strategy and mostly rely on ads. The fall of display ad prices, worsened by the COVID-19 recession, could put these publishers in danger of closing. BuzzFeed and Vox have cut staff pay or furloughed team members while tons of newspaper and sites like Protocol have suffered layoffs.

Tips might not replace other revenue streams, but could extend sites’ runway. A voluntary option to accept tips without having to build all the payments infrastructure could be a lifeline for the news business, if Google would ordain it a priority.

People who mostly get news from social networks have some COVID-19 misconceptions

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a COVID-19 information divide between people who mostly get their news from social networks and those who rely on more traditional news sources.

Pew surveyed 8,914 adults in the U.S. during the week of March 10, dividing survey respondents by the main means they use to consume political and election news. In the group of users that reports getting most of their news from social media, only 37% of respondents said that they expected the COVID-19 vaccine to be available in a year or more — an answer aligned with the current scientific consensus. In every other sample with the exception of the local TV group, at least 50% of those surveyed answered the question correctly. A third of social media news consumers also reported that they weren’t sure about the vaccine availability.

Among people who get most of their news from social media, 57% reported that they had seen at least some COVID-19 information that “seemed completely made up.” For people who consume most of their news via print media, that number was 37%.

Most alarmingly, people who primarily get their news via social media perceived the threat of COVID-19 to be exaggerated. Of the social media news consumers surveyed, 45% answered that the media “greatly exaggerated the risks” posed by the novel coronavirus. Radio news consumers were close behind, with 44% believing the media greatly exaggerated the threat of the virus, while only 26% of print consumers — those more likely to be paying for their news — believed the same.

The full results were part of Pew’s Election News Pathways project, which explores how people in the U.S. consume election news.

In response to COVID-19, Hulu adds a free live news stream to its on-demand app

In response to the COVID-10 outbreak, Hulu is adding a free, live news stream to its app for customers who only subscribe to its on-demand service, not its live TV add-on. The news coverage is provided in partnership with ABC News Live, and brings live news 24/7 to Hulu on-demand subscribers as part of their existing subscription.

This includes those who pay for Hulu alone as well as those who pay for the newer Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+ bundle subscription, the company noted. And it will be available to both tiers of Hulu’s on-demand service, including the ad-supported and Hulu’s No Ads plan.

The live stream will also be featured in the “Hulu Picks” section for easy access and will be available across living room and mobile devices, as well as popular game consoles.

Hulu Live TV customers, meanwhile, already have a number of live TV news channels they can watch as a part of their subscription. But Hulu’s on-demand service is far larger, with 27.2 million paid subscribers, compared with just 3.2 million for Live TV.

Health organizations and political leaders have urged Americans to get their news from trusted sources during the COVID-19 crisis — not from social media, where misinformation spreads more quickly than tech companies can moderate or remove. (When and if they try to do so.)

Meanwhile, the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak has led to a significant number of online rumors, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and snake oil cures. Earlier this week, for example, a fake news report of a national quarantine spread so quickly that the National Security Council had to post a statement to assure Americans the news was untrue.

The addition of live news for Hulu arrives at a time when a growing number of U.S. consumers have cut the cord with traditional pay TV or chose to never sign up in the first place. In Hulu’s case, the company says close to half its customers fall into one of those two buckets.

“More than 45 percent of Hulu viewers have either cut the cord or never had cable, and may not have access to live, televised news to receive critical information during times of national crisis,” the company said, in an announcement. “With this live stream, we aim to keep our viewers informed during this unprecedented time when having access to information is vital to our communities,” Hulu said.

In addition, fewer U.S. consumers today subscribe to a daily newspaper than in generations prior. Instead, much of our “TV viewing” is now taking place in on-demand apps like Netflix and Hulu, and our news is gathered in bits and pieces online.

Hulu isn’t the first streaming provider to add free live news to its service as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. This week, Sling TV launched free streaming that included live news from ABC News Live, as well.

Of course, you don’t need to be a Hulu subscriber to watch ABC News Live. The news service streams online and through the ABC News app for free. But integration into major streaming apps like Hulu will make the service more accessible and more visible, as it won’t require people to seek out a separate app just to watch.

 

Siri will now answer your election questions

Apple’s built-in voice assistant won’t help you figure out who to vote for, but it will be able to update you on different races around the U.S. during election season, as well as deliver live results as votes are counted. The new feature, announced today, is part of Apple News’ 2020 election coverage, which also includes a series of curated news, resources and data from a variety of sources, with the goal of serving users on both sides of the political spectrum.

With the added Siri integration, you’ll be able to ask the assistant both informational queries, plus those requiring real-time information.

For example, you may ask Siri something like “When are the California primaries?,” which is a more straightforward question, or “Who’s winning the New Hampshire primaries?,” which requires updated information.

Siri will speak the answers to the question in addition to presenting the information visually, which makes the feature useful from an accessibility standpoint, too.

The live results are being delivered via the Associated Press, Apple says. The company is also leveraging the AP’s real-time results in its Apple News app in order to give county-by-county results and a national map tracking candidate wins by each state primary, among other things.

As it has done in previous years, Apple’s news editorial team has added special coverage of the U.S. election to its app, by working with news partners. This year, Apple’s coverage comes from news organizations inducing ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FiveThirtyEight, Fox News, NBC News, ProPublica, Reuters, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, TIME, USA Today and others.

In Apple News, readers are able to learn about candidates and their positions, track major election moments — like the debates, conventions and Super Tuesday — and stay on top of election news and analysis all the way through election night in the U.S. and the subsequent presidential inauguration. A partnership with ABC News announced in December will also bring video coverage, including real-time streams, into the app.

The Siri feature draws on Apple News for its answers and offers a link to “Full Coverage” in the Apple News app, if you want to learn more.

The feature appears to still be rolling out. In tests, Siri was able to answer some questions but defaulted to web results for others, as before. A staggered rollout is standard for Apple launches, however, as new features take time to reach all users.

Apple partners with ABC on 2020 presidential coverage in the Apple News app

Apple announced today it will collaborate with ABC News on coverage of the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election in its Apple News app. The efforts will kick off with the Democratic primary debate on February 7, 2020, in New Hampshire, and will feature ABC News videos, live streams, plus FiveThirtyEight polling data, infographics and analysis during key moments in the 2020 election.

The collaboration will extend through Super Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the general election debates, election night and the 2021 presidential inauguration, Apple says.

ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV will also partner for the February debate, the first to be held after primary voting begins.

This isn’t the first time Apple has added special coverage to its News app in the months leading up to a U.S. election. The company began to push its own election coverage after the 2016 election controversies that saw large tech companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, facing congressional inquiries and investigations regarding the Russian interference with elections that took place across their networks.

In the months since, Apple News rolled out its own guide to the U.S. midterms, followed by a real-time election results hub on Nov. 6, 2018. And most recently, it added a guide to the 2020 Democratic candidates and debates.

The need for news platforms users can trust is a key part of Apple’s agenda with its News app. Apple cites ABC’s winning of four Edward R. Murrow Awards this year, including for overall excellence in television. It also hosted the most-watched debate of the 2020 presidential cycle so far in September 2019, with over 14 million viewers across ABC and Univision, and 11 million online video views.

FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, is known for its statistical analysis, data visualization, and reporting on politics and the election, which includes things like trackers on the latest polling, candidate endorsements, and fundraising.

“Access to quality news and trusted information is always important, and never more so than in an election year,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News, in a statement about the collaboration. “We’re proud to partner with ABC News to present the millions of people who use Apple News each day with dynamic live coverage and responsible analysis during the major news moments of the 2020 election.”

“This election is one of the most consequential in modern history, and this unprecedented partnership with Apple News will deliver our world-class political journalism to more people than ever before,” noted James Goldston, president of ABC News. “It will enable millions more people to have a deeper understanding of the key issues, candidates, and events by providing straightforward information, insight, and context during the entire 2020 cycle — reaching our audience anywhere and anytime they want breaking and in-depth news,” he said.

Prior Apple News election coverage involved a range of media partners, such as Axios, Politico, The Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, CBS and others.

It’s notable that Apple has this time selected ABC as its coverage partner. Apple has historically had close ties with Disney, which owns ABC, thanks to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s close relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Disney’s acquisition of Jobs’ company, Pixar, in 2006. However, with Apple’s launch of Apple TV+, a Disney+ competitor, Iger resigned from Apple’s board of directors, saying the two companies’ paths were conflicting. But as tihs 2020 election news partnership demonstrates, the two companies can still work closely together, at times.

 

 

The Google News mobile app now supports bilingual users

Google News is going bilingual. The company announced this morning a new feature that will allow users to update their Google News settings to support two languages instead of one, in an effort to better serve the more than 60% of people worldwide who speak and read news across two or more languages.

The change means you won’t have to constantly toggle between two languages in order to keep up with news that’s being covered elsewhere. This is particularly important for those who have moved to a different country, but want to keep up with their news from back home, as well as in places where it’s common for people to speak multiple languages.

Google cites the ability to read both English and Hindi news at the same time as a key example.

The update won’t impact your other personalization preferences, Google notes — it will just pull in more stories that match the topics and interests you care about.

The changes follow a larger revamp of the Google News product and destination website that’s been underway for over a year. At Google’s developer conference in 2018, the company announced its plans to leverage AI technology to help select which stories were shown first and how the news selection would be customized to each user, while not trapping them in so-called “filter bubbles” where they don’t have access to fact checks or the other side’s opinion.

That AI-powered version of the Google News app rolled out last spring. 

More recently, Google revamped the Google News tab on the desktop to organize articles in a card-style layout, which was meant to improve readability and better highlight the publisher sources.

Today’s new bilingual feature, however, is aimed at the Google News mobile app user base.

Google says the feature is available now across 141 countries and 41 languages on the Google News app for both iOS and Android. (On the desktop, you still have to pick just one language, we found.)

The company notes that being able to read news in other languages can also help people widen their perspective on issues.

“There’s still lots more to do to help connect people with quality and trustworthy news on the issues they care about, but we hope today’s update will make it easier to connect with different cultures and perspectives from the comfort of your device,” Google says.

SmartNews’ head of product on how the news discovery app wants to free readers from filter bubbles

Since launching in the United States five years ago, SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn status, has quietly built a reputation for presenting reliable information from a wide range of publishers. The company straddles two very different markets: the U.S. and its home country of Japan, where it is one of the leading news apps.

SmartNews wants readers to see it as a way to break out of their filter bubbles, says Jeannie Yang, its senior vice president of product, especially as the American presidential election heats up. For example, it recently launched a feature, called “News From All Sides,” that lets people see how media outlets from across the political spectrum are covering a specific topic.

The app is driven by machine-learning algorithms, but it also has an editorial team led by Rich Jaroslovsky, the first managing editor of WSJ.com and founder of the Online News Association. One of SmartNews’ goal is to surface news that its users might not seek out on their own, but it must balance that with audience retention in a market that is crowded with many ways to consume content online, including competing news aggregation apps, Facebook and Google Search.

In a wide-ranging interview with Extra Crunch, Yang talked about SmartNews’ place in the media ecosystem, creating recommendation algorithms that don’t reinforce biases, the difference between its Japanese and American users and the challenges of presenting political news in a highly polarized environment.

Catherine Shu: One of the reasons why SmartNews is interesting is because there are a lot of news aggregation apps in America, but there hasn’t been one huge breakout app like SmartNews is in Japan or Toutiao in China. But at the same time, there are obviously a lot of issues in the publishing and news industry in the United States that a good dominant news app might be able to help, ranging from monetization to fake news.

Jeannie Yang: I think that’s definitely a challenge for everybody in the U.S. With SmartNews, we really want to see how we can help create a healthier media ecosystem and actually have publishers thrive as well. SmartNews has such respect for the publishers and the industry and we want to be good partners, but also really understand the challenges of the business model, as well as the challenges for users and thinking of how we can create a healthier ecosystem.

Mozilla readies launch of news subscription service

Way back in February, Mozilla announced an upcoming collaboration with Scroll aimed at finding a way to help fund news outlets. The organization appears ready to finally launch to the service, sending users a survey, along with invites to an upcoming beta launch of what it calls “Firefox Ad-free Internet.”

The service is one of countless third-party platforms aimed at helping ailing publications find a way to better monetize in an an era of defunding, when journalistic voices are more important than ever. The Apple News offering is probably the most notable in the category, but Mozilla’s offering provides an interesting alternative to a standalone app.

The Firefox version essentially provides a way to bring users ad-free access to their favorite publications by paying an upfront fee of $5 a month. Per Mozilla:

The service enables web users to pay for an ad-free experience on their favorite sites, across their devices. By enabling more direct funding of publishers, Scroll’s model may offer a compelling alternative in the ecosystem. We will be collaborating with Scroll to better understand consumer attitudes and interest towards an ad-free experience on the web as part of an alternative funding model.

BuzzFeed, Gizmodo Media, Slate, The Atlantic and USA Today all seem to be on board with the offering ahead of launch.

HBO cancels daily news show ‘Vice News Tonight’

Just ahead of the 2016 presidential election, HBO announced its plans to carry a nightly news show courtesy of Vice News, called “Vice News Tonight.” That show is now being canceled, which puts an end to HBO’s seven-year-long relationship with the new media brand Vice Media, according to a report from The Hollywood Reporter out on Monday.

HBO and Vice had expanded their relationship over the years, with a 2013 deal for a weekly news magazine, “Vice;” plus multiple documentary specials and, later, the launch of the nightly news program.

The goal with “Vice News Tonight” was to reach a younger audience who had grown “increasingly skeptical of daily broadcast news,” Vice had explained in its announcement at the time of launch.

The media company argued that the nightly news format hadn’t changed in roughly 60 years, but the way younger viewers consumed information has. They no longer watch nightly news out of obligation, but because the show has earned their time and attention, the company said.

The program grew to reach an audience of over 500,000 viewers per episode and won five Emmys, but still faced a ton of competition in the broader news market.

The show also meant to appeal to younger viewers who have cut ties with traditional pay TV. But today, these viewers have a number of ways to stream the news — including through live TV internet services like YouTube TV, Sling TV, or Hulu with Live TV, for example, as well as via the streaming platforms themselves, like within Roku’s The Roku Channel or dedicated apps for media players like Apple TV. They can also now get the news through other dedicated news streaming services, like CBSN, CBS All Access, NBC News Now, Cheddar, or even on social networks like Snapchat.

Today, news streamer NewsON announced it was coming to Amazon Fire TV, as another example.

In addition, THR points out that “Vice News Tonight” was more of a passion project of former HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who left earlier this year following AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia.

Along with the cancellation of “Vice News Tonight,” Vice Media news chief Josh Tryrangiel will depart at the end of the month, a report from The Wrap notes. Meanwhile, former New York Post CEO and publisher Jesse Angelo will come on board as president of global news and entertainment.

“Jesse is a news pioneer and has built an incredible career by successfully expanding the world of publishing into wider forms of distribution through a multitude of platforms, including digital, social, audio and television,” Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc, in a statement. “With him joining our executive team, Vice’s strategic growth plan for news will begin and complement wider partnership opportunities already underway. We’ve had a great run with our friends at HBO and now we’re excited to launch our news products on new platforms, solidifying our place as one of the most trusted brands out there, drawing the youngest audience of anyone in hard news.”

The cancellation follows layoffs of 10% of Vice staff in February and the hiring of Katie Drummond, previously deputy editor at Medium, as SVP of Vice Digital in March.

Though “Vice News Tonight” may be over, it’s not the end of Vice’s streaming platform presence. The company is reportedly working on a new show for Hulu, a report a few months ago said. That deal hasn’t yet been announced. And Vice is shopping a daily news show to other networks and platforms, THR says.

“Vice News Tonight” will end in September when the contract is up.