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After conquering print, Google News is invading audio

Google Assistant’s personalized newscasts aim to do for audio what Google News did for text. But the audio aggregator could spell trouble for publishers—and frustration for listeners.

After conquering print, Google News is invading audio

Google is launching a new way to listen to the news on phones and Google Home speakers. By saying, “Hey Google, play the news,” you can hear a personalized audio newscast that pulls in stories from dozens of online sources. That means you no longer have to limit your news briefings to a single publication.

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Given everything that Google Assistant does already, this feature, called Your News Update, might not seem like a big deal. But Google doesn’t see it that way. In the search giant’s view, listening to the news on the internet today is a lot like reading print stories online in the late 1990s. Just as Google News became a major aggregator for print, Google is hoping its voice assistant will make sense of the current boom in audio news, which is being driven by podcasts and streaming services.

“What we want to do as a company is really bring the spoken audio web into a more modern, dynamic type of market,” says John Ciancutti, Google’s director of engineering for search.

Exciting as this is in theory, Google Assistant’s audio news update faces the same issues that Google News has gone through on the text side over the last 17 years: Google’s algorithms aren’t always great at picking the best or most interesting stories, and for publishers, there’s a risk that Google will extract much of the value that they currently get from ads and sponsorships. For now, at least, I’d rather have humans curate and present the news in audio form instead.

Breaking down the news

Your News Update isn’t Google Assistant’s first attempt at audio news. Since the voice assistant’s launch in 2016, users have been able to hear briefings from news sources such as the New York Times, NPR, Bloomberg, and Fox News. (Fast Company also participates in this endeavor.) Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant offers a similar audio news experience with its Flash Briefings.

To extend Google’s online newspaper analogy, the previous approach is kind of like opening one publication’s website and reading all of its top stories, then moving onto another website, whose stories might be similar. The new product is more of a Google News-style aggregator for all those sources.

“What we can do is put together something that hopefully sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, because it covers all those different interests in one place,” says Liz Gannes, a former Recode editor who is now Google’s product manager for audio news.

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The key element here is an open specification that allows publishers to tag and submit audio stories that cover a specific topic. Once Google receives a story, it can analyze the content and insert it into a playlist. Google also says it can recognize the story’s audio characteristics, allowing it to normalize audio across sources and mix and match stories based on their tone.

Chopping up newscasts this way does have some technical advantages. If a story isn’t interesting, you can skip ahead to the next one, and because Google knows what you’ve listened to previously, it can avoid repeating a topic unless it has updates to share. Google’s playlists also start with shorter stories before moving onto longer ones, so you can quickly hear the top headlines, and its overall mix of stories can cater to individuals based on search history, location, and other signals.

And yet, listening to Google’s audio news briefings before the official launch was less satisfying than I hoped it would be. Yesterday morning, for instance, its attempt at local news delivered a story from Columbus, Ohio (I live in Cincinnati, 90 minutes away), and in the afternoon, it repeated a story from earlier in the day about Donald Trump ranting on Twitter against a State Department employee. Both briefings also inexplicably ended after about 10 minutes, and I often found that the minute-by-minute shift between news anchors sounded jarring.

The bigger problem, though, is that the stories themselves were less substantive than what was available through other sources. My briefing yesterday afternoon included a story about a shooting at a Walmart in Oklahoma, a claim of racial abuse on a Qantas flight by the recording artist Will.i.am, a cat food recall (I’m not a cat person at all), and an overly deep dive into the turnout for Saturday’s gubernatorial election in Louisiana.

Not covered in that briefing: The United States’s declaration that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not illegal, a large-scale internet shutdown in Iran, John Legere’s plan to step down as T-Mobile’s CEO, accelerating deforestation in Brazil, or any sort of update on the House impeachment inquiry. This is subjective, of course, but I would have been much more interested in these stories than the ones Google’s algorithm turned up.

No business model yet

Part of the problem might be that Google isn’t yet drawing on a big enough pool of stories.

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Although Your News Update has a lengthy list of publishers on board—PBS NewsHour, the Washington Post, the Economist, CBS Radio, Gannett, and American Public Media among them—Google is only using audio that adheres to its content guidelines, some of which are rather stringent. Publishers are told, for example, to avoid referencing other stories, to keep headlines between 35 and 40 characters, and to make “clear handoffs” between anchors, reporters, and sources so it’s easy to understand who is talking. Google even recommends having more than one voice in each story and using “natural or ambient sound to enrich the story” when possible.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those guidelines, but publishers need incentives to go through the trouble, and it’s unclear what those will be in the long term. Unlike radio, podcasts, or even the Google Assistant briefings that come from a single source such as NPR, the new aggregated briefings don’t allow for ads or sponsorships, and Gannes says that won’t change anytime soon.

For now, Google is paying publishers to license their content, which it clearly can’t do forever, and its other incentives—analytics and brand exposure—probably won’t warrant serious investment from publishers.

“We want to really nail the user experience and grow our audience and ultimately create an ecosystem where people who bring value get value from it as well,” Gannes says.

For publishers who’ve seen how Google and Facebook have come to dominate the ad business—in part by becoming the biggest aggregators of online content—the idea that Google will take care of them financially might ring hollow. But if Google’s aggregated audio briefings catch on with users, publishers will feel compelled to participate either way, the same way most publishers do with Google News.

The good news is that Google Assistant users can still ask for the news the old-fashioned way, from a single publisher. At that point, they’ll get a single, cohesive briefing, anchored by a human, with a real sense that whoever is picking the stories has a firm understanding of why they’re important. Until Google’s algorithms can replicate all of that, publishers shouldn’t have too much to worry about.

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