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Jan. 11, 2019, noon
Mobile & Apps

“Here’s what else you need to know today”: The New York Times launches a flash audio briefing and other voice stuff for Alexa

“We’re trying to create an engaging experience that feels more narratively driven, not just like someone reading some headlines for a few minutes.”

The New York Times is pushing further into voice products for smart speakers. On Friday, the company announced that it’s launching a weekday flash news briefing called The New York Times Briefing for Alexa-enabled devices (hosted by Michael Barbaro, who is a busy man). It’s also debuting a weekly interactive news quiz from The Daily’s producers.

While smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are in tens of millions of homes, consumers aren’t such big fans of news on the devices yet. A recent survey from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that users think most flash briefings are too long — a complaint the Times means to address with its new products. The weekday flash briefing will be around three minutes long; an episode of The Daily can stretch to around 25 minutes.

While it was conducting research for its voice products, the Times found three general “modes” for news listening, said Dan Sanchez, editor of voice platforms. First, there’s “leanback, ambient” mode of listening to music or a podcast. “The Daily is good at filling that need, but it doesn’t fulfill the second mode, which is the need to complete a task or get quickly caught up on something,” Sanchez said. “You’re asking for news or for the weather in the morning while you’re brushing your teeth or getting dressed, and you may not have time to sit and listen to a 30-minute podcast, but you want something that’s quickly digestible before you go to work for the day, for example.”

The new daily flash briefing is designed for that catch-up mode. Sanchez pointed to the segment at the end of most episodes of The Daily “where Michael says, ‘Here’s what else you need to know today.’ We’re using that as a starting point but expanding on it, trying to tap into narrative storytelling a little bit more. It’s a challenge to do in such a short format. We’re trying to create an engaging experience that feels more narratively driven, not just like someone reading some headlines for a few minutes.” (The team has been piloting the briefing for a few months and built it into the workflow of The Daily, combining recording sessions whenever possible.)

The third mode the Times identified is “when people are in sort of a captive mode, ready and willing to engage fully with the journalism they’re getting on their speaker,” Sanchez said. “Maybe they’re bored on the weekend, or they’re looking for something to do with their kids or friends.” That’s where interactive audio experiences — like the weekly news quiz — come into play. Research into “captive mode” is still underdeveloped, Sanchez said, and “I’m not sure anyone’s figured it out yet, but we really wanted to experiment.” Consumers who listen to the daily flash briefing should do well on the weekly interactive quiz, which incorporates folks from the Times newsroom and gives participants their score at the end.

The flash briefings and weekly interactive quiz are only available via Amazon’s Alexa for now, though there are plans to eventually expand them to Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri as well.

The Times is also incorporating Alexa prompts into its journalism: For the first time, the Sunday print edition of the paper will include prompts that readers can use to hear more about stories in the Travel, Book Review, and Arts & Leisure section. “We want to really delight our print readers, who are not always the first people we target when we’re talking about innovation,” said Monica Drake, assistant managing editor. “This is innovation with a print element as well.”

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Jan. 11, 2019, noon
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