You Talking to Me?

The next wave of news bots are already installed in your readers’ and listeners’ homes

(Khoi Vinh)

You would be right if you looked back upon 2016 as a year in which newsrooms were seized by a bit of bot mania. Propelled by the ever-present need to keep Facebook happy, newsroom developers found themselves tasked with building conversational interfaces on top of the Messenger platform. From BuzzFeed’s BuzzBot, an emoji-heavy offering designed to deliver updates about the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to CNN’s more traditional approach, news bots were suddenly everywhere.

And then they weren’t.

It turns out that while some of these experiences were clever and occasionally charming, they were rarely useful. Even if you figured out how to find and interact with a news bot, it was often quicker and less frustrating to fire up an organization’s mobile app or head to Twitter to get updates than to type “give me the top story” into Messenger.

But there is something that’s even faster than heading to Twitter for the latest headlines, and it’s saying “Alexa, what’s in the news?” or asking Google Home, “what’s happening today?”

Amazon has shipped an estimated 8 million Echo devices since their launch in 2014, according to a report by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Google has not released sales figures for Home, which became available in the US last October.

Both products allow their owners to request everything from recipe suggestions to an Uber ride. And news organizations are only just starting to capitalize on the opportunity to become an integral part of an emerging ritual in millions of households.

Amazon calls its news experience on the Echo “Flash Briefings”, and there you’ll find offerings from traditional audio heavyweights like NPR and the BBC as well as recorded shows from The Economist, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg. Other organizations, including the AP and BuzzFeed News, have opted for the slightly uncanny valley of having their headlines delivered via Alexa’s not-quite-dulcet tones. Local news organizations are well represented: you can get updates from NBCUniversal’s local stations, Western Washington’s Kiro 7, various CBS affiliates, and a slew of Patch channels, among others.

On Google Home, there’s a similar range of shows and approaches. And as compared to fighting with iTunes or trying to get your phone to talk to your Bluetooth speakers, Echo and Home are much quicker at serving up the latest episode of your favourite podcast.

When it works, the experience of catching up on what’s happening via voice commands feels seamless, efficient, even pleasant. When it doesn’t, you find yourself yelling “Alexa, skip! or “OK Google, next!” because it’s the weekend and news organizations didn’t update their feeds beyond Friday’s headlines. If you subscribe to multiple newscasts there’s often duplication, something that still feels easier to manage when you’re skimming news feeds on your mobile device rather than waiting to hear if the next story will be be yet another update on the absence of presidential tax returns.

On the product side, building for Alexa’s Flash Briefing “skill” (as Amazon calls these) requires configuring an RSS feed and some JSON (as well as the usual developer accounts and a working knowledge of APIs). Amazon also provides a series of how-to webinars. Google’s approach to what they call “conversation actions” is…more complicated, but a first step is to fill out their form to request to be a part of their early-access program (choose “News” from dropdown that asks what vertical you’re interested in developing for).

These devices present a real opportunity to convert a generation of audiences that will probably never own a radio and that use their televisions only for Netflix. Serving up good audio experiences for these platforms is less demanding editorially than producing daily news video shows, but as always, success involves being thoughtful how audiences will use them, and when.



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