Listen Up! Voice Makes Itself Heard in Delivery of Local News

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Voice is beginning to be heard loud and clear in the digital community news space.

Voice-powered devices now reach nearly 50 million American adults, with the pace of adoption exceeding the fast growth of smartphones earlier in the decade. By 2020, the number of voice-powered devices is expected to swell to a full-throated 76.5 million, eMarketer forecasts.

In this Q&A, Steve Goldstein, CEO at Amplifi Media, talks about this new digital medium’s opportunities and potential pitfalls as it begins to give users what may become an earful of news.

We get news now by text, images, and video. What can voice alone add to that combination that can be compelling to the average news consumer, especially on the local scene?

Since Marconi invented radio, we’ve always had voice. The difference is now people have control, meaning they can choose what they want to listen to at a time that’s convenient. That’s part of the reason podcasts have done so well.

With voice from a smartspeaker, it’s frictionless. All of the pointing and clicking goes away. It’s tremendously powerful just to ask for something and it immediately starts responding—the weather, traffic, news, podcasts, music, all at your command.

Local news providers are making their first moves into voice. How is that going?

It’s a new platform and like the Web 20 years ago, publishers are rushing in. In those early days, most newspapers just threw their print content on the Web, and that was mostly a bad consumer experience and it failed. Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy, and other publishers are now experimenting with voice and working hard to unlock the formula.

Every platform is different, and audio is no exception. Publishers need to reimagine and curate their content for audio. Just putting voice to newspaper content is a pretty poor listener experience, and this is where things stand for many right now. They have Alexa reading articles, and that isn’t sustainable.

Are you saying that news publishers have to have a real live person with “voice” skills—and not just Alexa—voicing news reports? Does this mean that daily newspapers that want to expand to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home will probably have to hire a professional voice person at least part time?

I advise the company SpokenLayer, which takes newspaper content and curates it with audio in mind. SpokenLayer has voice talent and writers, so it functions as a turnkey solution for publishers.

So the answer is not “voicebots” like Alexa reading news?

Content needs to be written for the ear. The problem with the voicebot reading the news is a lack of intonation. It’s all horribly monotone. Without visuals, voice has to work extra hard to tell a story, and that includes highs and lows, correctly pronouncing local street names, and understanding local idiosyncrasies. The Alexa and Google voices are great for short content, like the weather, but longer content needs to have the emotion of real people delivering the news.

Local news publishers are having a hard time making their product exciting in the highly competitive digital world, where users can and do choose to consume news on Facebook and other social platforms. Is voice a way for publishers to win back their audiences?

Not so much win back, but augment. There aren’t that many local news organizations anymore, so the core of what they do is truly valuable and unique. Summarizing and exposing that content to a new generation is mission-critical.

In podcasting the median age is 29; with smart speakers, the first adopters are ages 18 to 34, but it is spreading across all demos pretty fast. Daily newspapers and TV stations have median ages in their 50s and above.

How can voice-savvy firms like your Amplifi Media and SpokenLayer and Saga Communications help news publishers lead with their ears instead of their eyes with this new phenomenon? Specifically, how do publishers get their audiences to focus on Alexa?

My company works with clients on developing custom content strategy and figuring out ways for content to resonate in an on-demand environment. We just launched an incredibly successful series of podcasts for Trader Joe’s. We developed a whole new way for them to talk to their shoppers.

We’ve helped ABC reimagine their news for the podcast environment and developed effective “skills” on the Alexa platform for Beasley Broadcast Group, a national chain of mid-size and large radio stations.

Matt Nystrom, vice president of digital media at my old company, Saga Communications, is at the forefront of figuring out what content ‘prints’ well on smart speakers.

It’s all trial and error in these early days.

When and where are news consumers likely to want to go to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home for their news? When they do this, does that mean they’ll spend less time consuming news on their laptop or with their smartphone?

Voice platforms like Alexa and Home can connect with news consumers right in their own kitchen, bathroom, or family room in a whole new way, instantly.

In these early days, we see surge hours in the early morning as people are getting going, and in the evening. A lot of people have devices in their family rooms.

I don’t think there is an equation about time spent on one medium versus another. I watch my adult children, and their expectation is that content be available instantly at a time of their choosing, so if you aren’t providing the service, someone else will, and then you are boxed out.

Radio and TV broadcasters have a head start over publishers in bringing news to the voice medium. You’ve pointed out that in one medium-sized city like Des Moines, Iowa, four TV stations want to be the leaders in voice-provided news. Can publishers effectively compete against broadcasters in this space across the country?

Radio newsrooms have been decimated in many markets. TV has jumped in quickly in many markets. Some are better at it than others, but in general they seem to understand the tremendous opportunity and are more comfortable with a microphone.

Newspapers have the content. And it doesn’t need to be just the latest news. Community events, for example, are a great resource for young parents. So, I think this has to do with imagination and solving problems for listeners and users rather than news publishers checking the box and shoving their content onto a new platform.

I heard a story about a TV news broadcaster who wants their weather person to be the voice when someone asks for weather on a smart speaker. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t solve any smart-speaker user’s problem, but I can understand why the TV person thinks that’s a good idea.

In five years, based on what’s happening so fast right now, where do you see voice ranking among platforms in how news is presented and consumed?

This is happening fast. Flash Briefings on Alexa are the easiest way to get news to people, and there are already over 5,000 of them. Everything will morph and change.

Voice is still in its early innings, but Edison Research data on smart speakers shows that the top things people are calling for is news. That’s enough for me to know that the time to get moving on this is right now. These devices are proliferating faster than smartphones did.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.