Amazon, NYT and The Economist are backing two young Irishmen to build the future of audio 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.

After a surge in Christmas sales of smart speakers, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is now answerable to 100 million owners, while the rival voice-activated Google Assistant will be on a staggering 1 billion devices by the end of January.

Undeniably, a new media platform has arrived, offering content owners the chance to reach audiences in ways not previously imagined. Where news is concerned, two Irish millennial entrepreneurs have put themselves in pole position to capitalise on this audio revolution.

Noa (which stands for ‘News Over Audio’) has signed The New York Times and The Economist to its already impressive roster of partner publishers, enabling it to upload between 45-50 human narrated long-form articles every day. The carefully-selected pieces are recording average dwell times of 331 seconds, far in excess of most text-based content.

The service has been embraced by both Amazon and Google for their increasingly ubiquitous virtual assistants, and Noa is set to be integrated into the in-car entertainment systems of more than 1m new vehicles. It will release products for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay later this month and the news service will also be provided to thousands of airport passengers later this year.

There are no guarantees that Noa’s young founders, Gareth Hickey and Shane Ennis, will become wealthy digital moguls. We are still in the foothills of voice-activated media and publishers have so far been slow to attract the attention of this new audience.

Research published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in November concluded: “Despite the rapid growth and strong promotion of voice technology, news consumption on these devices is currently lower than might be expected.”

The Institute noted that most news usage on smart speakers was of “very short news briefings”. The BBC, The Telegraph and CNN are among outlets offering “flash briefings” as “skills” on Alexa.

The Guardian recently announced a Guardian Voice Lab to explore ways of serving its journalism to this audience, while rival News UK, as the publisher of The Times and The Sun and owner of radio group Wireless, has obvious advantages in this field.

But Noa, which has been described as a “Spotify of News”, is currently at the head of the pack. Its Alexa offering is “hands down the most advanced journalism skill available on Alexa and something that Amazon themselves are really excited about,” says Hickey. The Noa skill was released on Amazon just before Christmas, to take advantage of festive sales of smart speakers, and has been heavily promoted by the tech giant, which this week became the world’s most valuable listed company.

“They are putting their teams and resources behind it and there’s a lot of excitement and even idea-sharing going back and forth to help us get this right,” Hickey says. “They want to offer something that’s valuable to their consumers.”

Until now, smart speaker owners have been more likely to see their new toys as comedians (“Alexa, tell me a joke…”) or music DJs, rather than as trusted sources of what is going on in the world.

Publishers made the mistake of thinking they could save time and money by converting text articles to automated speech. But users were unimpressed by the experience of listening to robots.

Hickey says the stage is now set to “give people a deeper engagement” with news by allowing them to listen to articles voiced by one of a team of six professional narrators (shortly to be expanded to nine). On Amazon, Noa users can request articles by topic, publisher or individual journalist – “Play Gillian Tett”. The work of the business columnist and her Financial Times colleagues is available alongside content from Bloomberg, The Independent, The Irish Times, Business Insider, The London Evening Standard and Law Society Gazette.

Following the deals with The New York Times and The Economist in September, many more publishers are looking to join the service. “Initially there was a lot of reaching out on our side and a lot of relationship building,” says Hickey. “But more and more now we are seeing publishers getting in touch with us. We have quite a lot of UK and US publishers coming on board, staggered almost on a month by month basis through 2019.” Noa will be adding high-end magazine titles to its offering this year and will become a bilingual service by including German language news.

Its intention is to create a user experience that replicates the immersive qualities of an audiobook, combined with an interactive element expected by many modern digital consumers.

To evoke the book experience it groups articles into topics, of which it currently has more than 120, ranging from the Congolese election to the US government shutdown. Within each of these topic-based “playlists” there might be five or 10 articles as chapters of the story, which the user will hear played one after another. Interactivity is provided in a “completion score”, which shows the percentage of the playlist that the user has consumed.

Hickey determined on the playlist-driven structure (which is on the phone app and will be introduced to the voice-activated service in time) because of American Press Trends research showing that a desire to master a particular topic was a major driver of subscriptions to news.

He hopes the percentage score feature will help to give the user a sense of completion and confidence that they are across their chosen subject. “What we are trying to do is gamify that news experience so that you see the path to success,” he says. “It’s similar to how you might engage with a book, where you start at the beginning and then you can use your bookmark to track your progress.”

Noa’s voice-activated service on Amazon (and imminently on Google) operates a metered paywall that allows users to listen to ten free articles before registering. Its phone-based app is also metered, with premium subscriptions priced at €7.99-a-month (all The Economist content is behind the paywall), and a three-month trial at €0.99-a-month.

The early history of the service has shown that good curation is crucial and that some types of article can give a negative impression to the user. “If a piece is too numeric it just doesn’t work - it’s a very cold listening experience,” says Hickey. He and Ennis have stepped back from the curation role to allow an editorial team of three journalists to pick the daily stories for the narrators.

Those journalists are increasingly involved in creating original content under the heading “In a Nutshell”, which is a series of 2-3 minute short explainer pieces designed to bring new listeners to subject areas in which they might not otherwise have shown interest. “It helps widen the market,” says Hickey.

He is convinced that in the field of audio entertainment “the current quality journalism market is minute compared to what it can be”. The founders have recently attracted more than €500,000 from outside investors, which means Hickey is reluctant to talk about current subscriber numbers, although he says there has been “significant organic growth” from the 12,500 who were using the service a year ago.

Having positive co-operation from Amazon and Google will surely help. As will alignment with the New York Times, whose podcast The Daily is widely seen as the gold standard in audio journalism. New deals are in the offing with a European car manufacture and its fleet of 1.2m connected vehicles, and a European airport that wants travellers to have easy access to Noa.

“We are confident now with the product we have and the user attention figures we see that we are in a strong position,” Hickey says. “2018 was a year of foundation building, this year is the year of reaching that mass market.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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