News Over Audio stakes its claim to be the 'Spotify of news'

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Gareth Hickey and Shane Ennis might not be the first media entrepreneurs to claim to be building the “Spotify of news” but they might be the most realistic pretenders to that throne.

While Spotify has built a $20bn business offering 70 million customers access to a catalogue of 30m songs, the two twenty-somethings behind News Over Audio (NOA) serve their user base with the sonic delights of news articles read out loud by professional narrators.

Instead of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ or Luis Fonsi’s global hit ‘Despacito’ (Spotify’s most popular tracks of 2017), NOA users can ‘stream’ the words of Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times exploring the idea of an NHS tax, or a tirade from the Independent’s Robert Fisk on the shambolic ineptitude of the leaders of the Muslim world.

NOA (pronounced like the fellow who built the Ark) is still at the start of its journey. But in its first year it has built partnerships with some of the biggest names in English-language journalism, namely the FT, the Indy, Bloomberg and the Irish Times, which all supply a substantial selection of their journalism for transfer to audio format. More high-ranking news organisations are expected to sign up to the service during 2018.

Making sense of a relentless news agenda

Hickey and Ennis devised the platform to serve those – particularly millennials such as themselves – who feel overwhelmed by the torrent of news headlines on social media channels and struggle to find time to engage with journalism in the written word. They are addressing a taste for digital audio media that is seen in the popularity of podcasts and the emergence of smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa-controlled Echo (on which NOA is now also positioned).

“Our goal from the start is that we see this as a way to empower people to stay informed,” says Hickey. “We were consumers of news just like any millennial but we felt overburdened with the news flow and weren’t making sense of it. We feel we can make a product that makes news easier to consume and empower people to become consumers of quality journalism.”

For most news publishers, video is the priority medium for connecting with young audiences. But audio formats are also prominent in the strategy of organisations who understand that news is increasingly consumed on the move.

This explains why one German car maker is in talks with NOA over incorporating the service into its in-car infotainment system, and why so many publishers have already been willing to engage with the two young Irishmen behind NOA. Publishers pay nothing to be part of the service, with NOA paying the production costs of voicing the articles through a team of five narrators who record the piece for uploading to NOA’s app, often on the same day it was published by the paper.

NOA offers around 20 audio stories a day, meaning around 600 pieces are available to users who pay €8-a-month (£7.08) for the premium service. This is a fraction of the subscription charges of many quality papers and offers a range of news sources which Hickey and Ennis are anxious to broaden. “We want to include magazines and industry specific publications,” says Hickey. “Good writing and good stories is what we are after. We definitely want to widen that scope.”

Bringing on board Australian and American titles will help NOA to have a 24-hour window of news coverage, he adds. There are distant plans for the title to incorporate non-English language news.

NOA markets itself with a free “daily listen balance” of four articles, after which users hit a paywall.

The founders were not long out of university when they chose to give up their jobs in order to try and transform the consumption of news. Hickey says they had the idea as consumers. Being fans of the audio version of the Economist and avid listeners to audio books, they went in search of a platform that offered a diversity of audio news sources. “The question that came to mind is ‘Who is the Spotify of Journalism?’” Hickey says. The answer was no one.

Other multi-source platforms have been dubbed as a “Spotify for news”, such as Holland’s Blendle and Australia’s Ink, but both retain written formats. The book-marking app Pocket (previously known as Read It Later) allows users to store articles for quieter moments but, again, in words.

There was nothing that translated articles for listening.

Striving for scale – and standards

Ennis previously worked at eBay and has experience as a developer. Hickey was a financial analyst. They pooled their skill set.

Within a few months of going public last summer, NAO has a user base of 12,500, of which nearly 4,000 are active weekly consumers. The type of content which has proved most popular so far is opinion and analysis. Stories are grouped by publisher, and then under subject headings such as “Business & Finance” and “Technology & Science”.

While Hickey is committed to a scale model rather than serving a niche of news junkies, he is adamant that NOA needs to maintain quality standards. “We are building out an editorial manifesto saying these are the values that we want to adhere to and want to be presenting stories that are impactful to society and have strong relevance.” In due course, NOA could start employing journalists of its own, he says.

Other plans include partnering with book publishers to incorporate samples of fiction writing, in the traditions of magazines such as the New Yorker. “We believe that would be successful at the weekends,” says Hickey.

Publishers receive a minority share of NOA’s revenues from subscriptions and advertising, based on the amount of time users spend engaging with their content. Some have expressed interest in taking a stake in the platform’s future funding.

NOA has so far been financed by seed funding from a small group of investors but will be seeking a new round of investment later this year, when it will be launch a new version of its app that will use audience data to be responsive to the subject interests of users.

Hickey claims that the average time spent listening to one of its audio piece is over 5 minutes, (engagement rates for written news articles are typically 60-90 seconds according to Chartbeat). NOA runs audio ads of 10-12 seconds at the end of every third article, and he says that most users do not choose to skip them. “The engagement rate for ads is 90 per cent – they are only short so by the time you take your phone out of your pocket and press ‘next’ it is over. People don’t mind the ads.”

Of course there is already a well-established audio platform for news and it is called talk radio.

But, as news becomes increasingly personalised and personal time pressures grow more acute, Hickey claims NOA has distinct advantages over radio that will become more apparent.

“By its nature, radio is conversational and you’re not going to expect the same high level of informational value, perspective and context in five minutes as you would listening to an opinion piece from say Martin Wolf of the FT or Patrick Cockburn from the Independent,” he says.

“Having a straight read, similar to an audio book, allows us to provide a full story front-to-back in a very short space of time. Radio would be more drawn out and would go off topic at times. That allows us to stand out over radio and cater for a more time-sensitive audience.”

Declaration of interest: I was on the staff of The Independent for 20 years until 2016 and have worked for Bloomberg Media Studios, part of Bloomberg.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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