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Nov. 14, 2018, 7:01 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Consumers love smart speakers. They don’t love news on smart speakers. (At least not yet.)

People are still much more likely to use smart speakers for music and weather than news. But that could change as news organizations design news briefings specifically for the speakers.

Smart speakers like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are rapidly gaining in popularity, but use of news on the devices is lagging, according to a report released Wednesday night by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Use of the devices for music and weather is still far ahead of news use. And among consumers’ complaints about news briefings: They’re too long.

Luckily, there’s time for news publishers to catch up, finds Nic Newman, a senior research associate at RISJ, who did his research via in-home interviews and focus groups, online surveys, and publisher interviews. (He also tapped Amazon, Apple, and Google for whatever data they were willing to share — which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a lot; none of the companies would share data on how many devices they’ve sold or discuss trends in how news is consumed on them.) Smart speakers are still devices for early adopters: 14 percent of U.S. adults are now using them, compared to 10 percent of U.K. adults and 5 percent of German adults; Juniper Research predicted last year that they’ll be found in 55 percent of U.S. households by 2022.

Here are some of Newman’s findings:

— News consumption on smart speakers is lower than one might expect. In the U.K., for instance, while 47 percent of smart speaker users said they use the device for news monthly and 21 percent use it daily, only 1 percent said news was the device’s most important function. In the U.S., 38 percent of smart speaker users use the device for news at least monthly and 18 percent at least daily.

— When it comes to which news brands people access on their smart speakers, the default matters a lot: In the U.K., for instance, the default news brand on Google Homes, Amazon Echos, and Apple HomePods is BBC News. In the U.S., there’s a more even split between brands in part because NPR is no longer the default on Alexa. (It is on Apple devices, however.)

Smart speaker news briefings didn’t get much love from users in this research. Here are some of the complaints Newman heard:

— Overlong updates — the typical duration is around five minutes, but many wanted something much shorter.

— They are not updated often enough. News and sports bulletins are sometimes hours or days out of date.

— Some bulletins still use synthesized voices (text to speech), which many find hard to listen to.

— Some updates have low production values or poor audio quality.

— Where bulletins from different providers run together, there is often duplication of stories.

— Some updates have intrusive jingles or adverts.

— There is no opportunity to skip or select stories.

Length in particular was an issue that arose. One American interviewee named Adam said, “When someone asks for an update on something, they are asking for a summary. Don’t give me something that is longer than a minute.” Right now, for instance, when you ask for news on a smart speaker from The New York Times, you get its podcast, The Daily, which is usually at least 15 minutes long.

The news organizations that Newman spoke with were aware of these complaints. The Washington Post, for instance, knows that audiences “appreciate brevity more than breadth.” The New York Times plans to replace its current news briefing — The Daily — with a shorter native briefing, with Dan Sanchez, the Times’ lead for voice, acknowledging that The Daily is “a great narrative deep dive but is not really a way to quickly get informed about what you need to know at the beginning of every day.”

Quibbles aside, users said that the news briefings made them feel more informed. In the U.S., for instance, “56 percent of news update users feel far or slightly more informed.”

— People do use smart speakers to play live radio, which of course can also include news. 19 percent “of all online listening to NPR’s member stations’ live radio streams now comes from smart speakers,” for instance, and NPR hasn’t seen declines on other platforms, Recode’s Rani Molla reported this week.

Podcast use on smart speakers, meanwhile, is still relatively low. One reason for that is that “podcasts are often niche and personal. They don’t always work within a shared space at home.”

“Podcasts are the sort of thing I would listen to on a train,” one focus group participant told Newman.

— People see smart speakers as a way of breaking free from screens. One theme Newman found was

the desire — almost universally expressed — to spend less time with screens. Respondents felt overwhelmed, assaulted by technology and often by news as well. Many spend all day at work on screens or looking at their smartphone. Some resent the way in which the internet can distract and waste time by taking people down “rabbit holes.” Part of the appeal for voice devices is they act differently.

People are starting and ending their days with smart speakers and “in this specific respect, it is the smartphone that is being displaced and that may have profound implications for media owners looking to distribute content,” Newman notes.

— Smart speakers provide yet another occasion for publishers to clash with platforms, and publishers are (rightfully) wary of creating more content specifically for big tech companies. For instance, users like to ask their smart speakers “everyday questions,” but when it comes to news this often doesn’t go smoothly:

As one example, we asked for “the number of people who died in the Grenfell Fire.” Google and Alexa gave slightly different numbers because they drew the result from two different news articles published at different times. One platform (Google) made clear what the source was (the Independent) and also gave the date. But this answer was also a rather complex and longwinded way of getting the number that we were after.

A few weeks later, the answers given to this query had changed. Alexa successfully and precisely returned the officially recognized number (72) — but with no additional information about the source. Google had changed its answer to select a relevant part of a Wikipedia entry that also contained the exact number (72).

News publishers could work with the platforms to create answers to questions like these — but what’s in it for them?

Publishers we interviewed were extremely wary of helping Google (or Amazon) build a huge global “answer engine,” without compensation — and it is difficult to see how advertising or sponsorship could work around such short pieces of content. Instead, one publisher suggested that “news answers” could be developed as premium service (e.g. bundled with Amazon Prime) in conjunction with a number of interested news organizations. Each would be paid in proportion to the number of queries that were considered most relevant and then read out.

— Privacy concerns aren’t (yet) paramount. “It’s not nice to know you’re being listened in on all day, but in the end I don’t give a shit,” one German user said.

The full report is here.

POSTED     Nov. 14, 2018, 7:01 p.m.
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