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Location, location, etc: What does the WSJ’s Foursquare check-in say about the future of location in news?

It was the Foursquare check-in heard ’round the world. Or, at least, ’round the future-of-news Twitterverse. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal checked in to the platform’s Times Square venue with some breaking news:

The headline that screenshot-taker dpstyles appended to the image is correct: the real-time, geo-targeted news update was, really, a pretty amazing use of the Foursquare platform.

It wasn’t the first time that the Journal, via its Greater New York section, has leveraged Foursquare’s location-based infrastructure for news delivery purposes. The outlet has done more with Foursquare than the much-discussed implementation of its branded badges; it has also been making regular use of the Tips function of Foursquare, which allows users to send short, location based updates — including links — to their followers. The posts range from the food-recommendation stuff that’s a common component of Tips (“@Tournesol: The distinctively French brunches here feature croques madames and monsieurs and steak frites. After dining, check out the Manhattan skyline in Gantry State Park”) to more serious, newsy fare:

@ The middle of the Hudson River: Remember the Miracle on the Hudson? Well, investigators aren’t saying that Captain “Sully” shouldn’t have landed in the river, but he probably didn’t need to. [Link])

@ George Washington Bridge: Police were told to stop and search would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi’s car in Sept. 2009 as he drove up to the bridge — but waved him across without finding two pounds of explosives hidden inside. [Link]

@ Old Homestead Steakhouse: Kobe beef, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, was pulled from the menu after Japanese cows tested positive for foot-and-mouth disease. [Link]

The general idea is, essentially, curation by way of location: geo-targeting, news dissemination edition. “You get these tips because you’re nearby,” Zach Seward, the WSJ’s outreach editor (and, of course, the late, great Lab-er) told me. “So at least in theory, that’s when you’re most interested in knowing about them.”

The Journal’s use of the check-in feature for a breaking-news story, however, suggests a shift in the platform/content relationship implied in the info-pegged-to-places structure. “Times Square evacuated” is a legitimate news item, of course, in most any context; but it’s particularly legitimate to people who happen to be in Times Square at the moment the news breaks. The Journal’s check-in acknowledged and then leveraged that fact — and, in that, changed the value proposition of location in the context of news delivery. In its previous tips, the location had been pretty much incidental to the information — a clever excuse, basically, to share a piece of news about a particular place (see, again: “The middle of the Hudson river“). In the Times Square check-in, though, the information shared was vitally connected to the physical space it referred to. Location wasn’t merely a conduit for information; it was the information. Proximity’s previously weak tie to content became a strong one.

In other words, as Seward explains of the Times Square check-in: “If you’re following the Journal, and you’re in New York, you’re going to see this at the top of your timeline on your Foursquare app. And if you’re not in New York, you’re not going to see it — or you’re not going to see it at the top. And that makes perfect sense.” Because, again: “That idea that you want to be informed about what’s around you is the fundamental principle that Foursquare is operating on.”

Whether Foursquare itself is an effective venue for a news outlet’s realization of that principle is a different issue. There are certainly advantages to Foursquare for location-aware news — its built-in user base, for one. Its curatorial power, for another. (“One really specific way in which it’s ideal,” Seward says, “is that the whole platform is designed around only telling you what’s in your vicinity.” It focuses, myopically and straightforwardly, on the near — filtering out the far.) For users, then, Foursquare-as-news-platform suggests a river whose width is narrow, whose content is familiar — and whose current is as such readily navigable.

And for news organizations, it offers a relatively organic approach to the problem of content presentation. “Generally, whether it’s in print or online, or any platform for a news organization, you have one opportunity to decide how important a story is — and give it a huge, assassinations-sized banner headline, or a small little bullet, or whatever in between,” Seward points out. “But with local news in particular, the relevancy, and the importance, varies widely, often based on where you are, and/or where you live.” A location-based infrastructure for news delivery provides, among other things, “an opportunity to make that adjustment.”

Which is not to say that Foursquare itself is ideal for those purposes. The Journal’s use of tips and, now, check-ins, Seward says, “is a bit of a hack of a system that wasn’t created for brands.” The Journal is still, according to Foursquare, located in Times Square — via a check-in clarifying that Friday’s bomb scare had been a false alarm — and until the outlet’s editors decide that there’s another story worth checking in to, it will remain that way. “Because that’s just how Foursquare works.”

There’s also the “how Foursquare works” in the more ephemeral sense. Whether you’re a badge-laden multi-mayor or find the platform to be an unholy union of the mobile web and Troop Beverly Hills, Foursquare has defined its identity, at least in its early existence, by a feature that has been both its key limitation and its key asset: the purity of its socialness. Foursquare is fun. It’s peer-to-peer. Even more importantly, it’s pal-to-pal.

The Journal’s presence on Foursquare — and, further, its leveraging of the platform for purposes of news dissemination and (oof!) branded information — adds some tension to that freewheeling spirit. (As Adam Clark Estes, The Huffington Post’s citizen journalism editor, put it: “Does @WSJ sending news alerts via @foursquare clog the utility/fun? Or challenge Twitter?”) News content, almost by inertia, has a way of infiltrating nearly every major social media platform; there’s an is nothing sacred? aspect to the criticisms of outlets’ imposition of themselves on the board-game-writ-real that is Foursquare.

That’s something Seward is well aware of. “Perhaps more than Twitter, people use Foursquare in a really personal way,” he says. “They limit who they’re following to people they actually know, and they’re expecting to see their friends there.” So it might well be jarring to find a news organization’s tips and check-ins mixed into a timeline with the personal ones. (Then again, he points out, users “can choose or not choose to have those updates pushed to them.” So that mixture, like the updates themselves, is an opt-in scenario.) And then there’s the issue of a check-in suggesting a reporter’s physical presence on the scene of a news story: How should news outlets navigate that implication?

They’re “good questions,” Seward says — even as he downplays the check-in’s significance in the greater scheme of things. (“Foursquare just announced that it now has over 40 million check-ins,” he notes, making the Times Square update “just one of 40 million check-ins in its history.”) Still, one little check-in can suggest a lot. Location-based news — its potential and its pitfalls — is something that the Journal and, now, other outlets will likely continue to grapple with as they find their own place in the new media landscape.

                                   
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