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Aug. 30, 2016, 12:28 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Alexa, give me the news: How outlets are tailoring their coverage for Amazon’s new platform

News is one of the device’s core features, and there are two main ways — so far — that outlets have utilized Alexa: The Flash Briefing and skills.

My routine most mornings these days goes like this: After snoozing my iPhone alarm at least twice, I roll over and say, “Alexa, give me my Flash Briefing.”

The Amazon Echo sitting on my nightstand comes to life and proceeds to play NPR’s latest newscast.

As I force myself out of bed to shower, brush my teeth, and get dressed, the Flash Briefing goes onto play a 90-second mini culture podcast from Slate, an update on the presidential race from The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, and some local Boston news from the NBC-owned NECN. Some mornings, I’ll even ask Alexa to pull up a stream of WBUR, the local Boston NPR affiliate.

Regardless of how I decide to use it, the Echo has enabled me to multitask in the morning instead of wasting my time lying in bed reading tweets or straining to hear my overworked iPhone speakers playing the news.

The Echo is Amazon’s 9.25 inch-tall cylindrical voice-powered speaker. It’s controlled by Alexa, the company’s AI software, which has become available on other devices as well.

Amazon launched the Echo in November 2014 and it became widely available for purchase in June 2015. Since then, the device has gotten rave reviews and prompted many people to think about how voice-activated technologies can be used more prominently in the home. News is one of the device’s core features, and a variety of publishers are trying to determine how their work might best fit on it.

“Echo, interestingly, we saw having a bit of a moment at the early part of this year, especially around their Super Bowl campaign,” said Frank Conway, Refinery29’s VP of product. “It was becoming more and more of a consumer product, not a necessarily an early adopter product, to the point where they were selling these things out. It had gotten salient. We want to be in a place where we can introduce our audience to new technologies or with technologies they already have today, in this case with Echo, that we can participate in that.”

There are two main ways — so far — that outlets can utilize Alexa: the Flash Briefing and skills. Flash Briefings are a passive experience, which are perfect to listen to while getting ready in the morning or while cooking dinner. Using the Alexa app on their phone, users choose a lineup of updates they want to receive and then ask Alexa to play it whenever they want. That’s it. Briefing channels are typically about 90 seconds long.

Skills, meanwhile, must be installed by the user but can have a more active interface — including asking Alexa for specific pieces of information. For example, The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) has built two skills: one that covered the Summer Olympics and another focused on its political coverage. There are many non-news skills as well; Alexa users can play Jeopardy, get workout instructions, and more.

Last Thursday, Amazon announced that it was enabling streaming audio skills on Alexa, meaning users will be able to stream and control audio playback in skill form, which could allow for better integration of podcasts or other audio news playback.

Amazon sold 1 million Echoes in the second half of 2015 after the device became available to all consumers, The Information estimates. The company’s goal is to sell 3 million Echoes this year and 10 million in 2017, according to the Information. (Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Echo, or much else.)

As my own behavior illustrates, the Echo can be a useful tool for news. I wanted to know, however, how the news outlets themselves were approaching yet another distributed platform. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with five different news organizations about how they’re using Alexa. Because the platform is so new, all the publishers I spoke with categorized their forays onto the Echo as experimental.

Skills challenge

For outlets working with Amazon to publish on Alexa, the first decision to make whether to create a channel in the Flash Briefing or a skill. Many publishers have decided to focus, at least initially on the more straight-forward Flash Briefing, but a handful, including the Post, have created their own skills.

As it developed its skills, the Post assigned a designer to the project to help work out some of the user interface challenges, said Joey Marburger, the paper’s director of product.

“With the skill, it’s more like using Google, but you really have to know what you’re looking for,” he said. “Google is just like how Siri operates: When it doesn’t know anything, it just gives you a list of results. Alexa doesn’t have that benefit really, so if something fails, a person will be like, ‘Oh, I guess it can’t do that. So I’ll maybe never try it again.’ There’s a really big UX challenge there that will change over time for everybody, not just us, because conversational interfaces as a whole are really clunky right now.”

For instance, if you had asked the Post’s Olympic skill for the swimming results during the games, it wouldn’t necessarily know what you’re asking for. Instead, you’d have had to specify by event by requesting, say, the results for the women’s 100-meter backstroke. “By that point, I could’ve found that information much quicker and faster in other places,” Marburger said. The Post has found that the skills are better for requesting quick-hit information, such as the latest polls or the Olympic medal count.

“We need to get better at helping — almost by hand, write what some of those decision flows are to get people the right information,” he said. “With the Olympics, it’s so broad and so huge, you can’t really do that, so that taught us a lot about how the UX should be moving forward.”

And even when you spend the time and resources to develop a skill, there’s a chance Amazon might just usurp you and integrate similar functionality directly into Alexa. That happened to the Post just after it launched its Olympic skill. So instead of having to specifically ask The Washington Post for Olympic results, users could just say, “Alexa, give me the latest Olympic medal count” and get the answer more quickly.

Even though the Post is owned by Bezos, Marburger said it isn’t getting any special treatment when it comes to Alexa.

Alexa, give me my Flash Briefing

Those complications led many outlets, especially those that are able to repurpose existing coverage, to focus on the Flash Briefing and find different ways to try and differentiate themselves in that area.

While other news orgs’ Flash Briefing offerings are tied to the news cycle, Slate wanted to create a product that was more explanatory and not necessarily about the news. What it created, 90 Seconds With Slate, is essentially a short podcast hosted by culture editor Dan Kois. For now, it’s posted every other day, but Kois said he hopes to increase the frequency.

Kois said he typically records each episode in one take with a hand mic attached to his iPhone. Recent episodes have covered topics such as a four-hour Bruce Springsteen concert and Tim Kaine’s Replacements fandom.

Slate head of product development David Stern said the show was developed in just a matter of weeks after Amazon approached Slate about launching something for Alexa.

“We generally want to be on as many distribution platforms as we can, as early as we can, because there’s a return to being early,” Stern said. “We can’t always justify the expense when there’s not revenue there yet, but in this case it seemed like a no-brainer.” (Stern said Amazon wasn’t paying Slate to be on the platform.)

Most of the publishers I spoke with don’t have dedicated Alexa teams — they’ve incorporated Alexa production into staffers’ existing workflows. Newsy, the digital video outlet owned by Scripps, launched an audio-only app, Newsy Radio, last fall. It expanded to Alexa in June, and it produces 10 to 12 updates per day for the platform. Newsy’s updates are read by its radio hosts; three to five stories make up a 90-second edition.

“The real effort here is in curating the work we’re already doing,” said Newsy vice president of news Christina Hartman. “In a sense, there’s repurposing in that we’re already researching these headlines we’re including for Alexa. You’ll see when you go to our apps or our OTT platforms that a lot of the stuff we’re covering in the [Alexa] headlines, we’re taking a deeper dive into on video.”

Refinery29’s Flash Briefing offering is an audio version of its morning news roundup, which is published in a native iOS app and on its website. The challenge for the site’s staffers is to figure out how to to convert something written to be read into something delivered audibly. To create the Alexa version, Refinery29 added an extra field in its CMS; the editors creating the post tweak the writing to create the Alexa version of it.

“The main difference in how we think about that language and what we rewrite for Alexa is: How can something feel entirely self contained? It’s one of the very few places where you have a small blurb of language where you really have to understand the entire story,” said Neha Gandhi, Refinery29’s senior vice president of content strategy and innovation. “There’s no opportunity to click out, there’s no opportunity to get some clarification through an image. It really is: How do you take 25 words and make them a wholly enclosed story?”

NBC owns 11 stations in markets across the United States, and those stations were the first local outlets on the Echo and Alexa. The stations each update their Alexa briefings three or four times a day, said Lora Dennis, senior vice president of digital media for NBC-owned stations. Staffers in each newsroom adapt the top stories for a 90-second briefing.

The NBC stations and Refinery29 both use Amazon’s text-to-voice technology for their flash briefings. The computer doesn’t sound as natural as a human, of course, but both outlets said they’re working with Amazon to help it improve Alexa’s pronunciation.

“In the testing process, we learned that there are certain words Alexa doesn’t recognize,” said Dennis. “It’s training Alexa to understand what certain things mean. NBC 10 may be recognized as ‘NBC one-oh,’ or Houston Street versus Houston Street in New York. There are some things you have to train Alexa.”

The Post’s Flash Briefings were initially computer-read, but around the political conventions in July, the paper decided to have Fix blogger Chris Cillizza begin reading them. Amazon doesn’t offer publishers real-time data, but Marburger said he “would venture to guess, with him reading it, it’s a big reason that our channel briefing has gone up in engagement.”

Metrics and money

For the Flash Briefings, the publishers said Amazon sends regular reports with the overall listens and the number of unique listeners. None of the outlets I spoke with would share specifics about how many users were utilizing or subscribing to their Alexa products.

When it comes to the skills, Marburger said there’s a developer dashboard that shows how many unique users are utilizing the skill and then which parts of the skill were being used.

While all the publishers I spoke with are focused on growing audience on the Echo, some have begun to look for ways to monetize as well. In July, the Post became the first publication to sell ads in its Flash Briefing. Marburger said the Post asked Amazon if they could advertise on the platform. Marburger said the company had no issues with it, and suggested best practices. The paper’s product team then shared those with its ad sales team.

“Here are our recommendations: Make it short — make it max 10 to 15 seconds. The shorter the better. Think of it like a radio-style sponsorship. There’s a little burner between a radio show, ‘Brought to you by Morgan Stanley’ — think of that. Try not to do a preroll video style ad. We constrained what they could do there. We weren’t sure whether any advertiser would take that because it’s so new, even though we were also touting that you could be one of the first people to sponsor a channel on Alexa,” Marburger said.

“Then Morgan Stanley was like, ‘We love this idea, we really want to do it.’ We checked with Amazon again. They said it was fine and just said to be careful with the wording to make sure they’re not sponsoring the whole Alexa operating system.”

Outlets like Newsy and Refinery29 said it was still too early for them to discuss advertising, but Slate said it was already in talks with advertisers to see if it could find a sponsor for its Flash Briefing show.

Every publisher I spoke with stressed that it’s still very early days when it comes to publishing on the Echo and Alexa. But as Amazon spreads the Alexa software to additional devices and consumers become more comfortable with connected home devices, the outlets said they expect the appeal of voice-controlled news to grow. And whether its additional Flash Briefing offerings or additional skills, all the publishers said they plan to continue to experiment with Amazon and Alexa.

“Frankly, we’re a little bit bullish on voice,” said Refinery29’s Conway.

Photo by Ken M Erney used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 30, 2016, 12:28 p.m.
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