News Over Audio seals its place in millions of cars as it strives to reimagine reporting

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.

A pioneering audio journalism service on which Financial Times journalists are playing a starring role is to be introduced by a luxury motor manufacturer as a feature of its in-car entertainment.

The Ireland-based startup Noa (News Over Audio) has been described as a “Spotify for news” after partnering with many of the biggest English-language newspapers in the world to feed the growing market for on-demand audio content by having key articles voiced by actors. It has been boosted by the surge in popularity of podcasting.

The Washington Post, now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, signed up to Noa earlier this year, joining the New York Times, the FT, The Economist, the Telegraph, The Independent and the Irish Times among the platform’s portfolio of 12 premium publishing partners.

Last week Noa launched its app on the Android Auto and Apple Car Play platforms, meaning that millions of motorists can hear the voiced words of journalists, such as the FT columnist Gillian Tett or the Business Insider founder Henry Blodget, while they drive. More significant, says Noa co- founder Gareth Hickey, will be the service’s integration into the operating system of a European- based car maker early in 2020.

“They see audio as a big driver of in-car entertainment and they don’t want Android or Apple to own that experience because they don’t want cars to be homogenous,” he says. “You don’t need to connect your phone, the dashboard is already connected and has its own SIM card that allows you to do many things including navigation and paying for fuel. As soon as you are behind the wheel you see Noa beside Spotify and other recognisable platforms. It’s super-convenient and builds awareness for us as well.”

Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg’s Berlin-based Europe columnist, is the most popular individual journalist in audio news, according to Noa’s top 10 authors chart, which is dominated by the FT and headed by the pink un’s famous Lex business and finance column, which traditionally appears on the back of the front section of the print paper.

Other journalists who appear in the top 10 for articles streamed since July are Tett (FT), Therese Raphael (Bloomberg), Nicholas Kristof (New York Times), John Gapper (FT), Fintan O’Toole (Irish Times), Gideon Rachman (FT), James Cook (Telegraph) and John Rentoul (Independent).

A journalist’s writing style can be more important than subject matter in helping an article translate well to audio, Hickey says. “We lean towards storytellers – those who balance the right combination of fact and context. Leonid Bershidsky writes as though he’s explaining something to you – drawing on historical examples and coming full circle by the end of the article.

“Lex assumes you’ve prerequisite knowledge, but when you do understand the topic at hand, their writers are masters of perspective. They help you think differently. Others like hard-hitting facts and opt to tell a story that way, but over audio it makes comprehension more difficult so we tend to steer clear [of publishing them].”

Hickey and founding partner Shane Ennis had the idea for Noa back in 2015 and have gradually been winning the English-language media round to the value of the idea, which earns publishers a share of 30% of the platform’s total subscription revenues, proportionate to engagement with their content.

Four publishers (The Telegraph, the Harvard Business Review, the Irish Times and Business Insider) have signed up to use Noa’s embeddable audio player on their websites so that their audiences can have a choice of listening to a piece, rather than reading it. “We provide [them] with a bit of code that allows the article to be published on the article page at the same time that it is published on our app,” says Hickey. He describes Noa’s branded presence on such prestigious sites as a “huge stepping stone” for the startup.

Noa has built ‘skills’ for Business Insider and the London Evening Standard for use on the Amazon Alex and Google Home smart speaker systems. The Standard’s ‘Morning Briefing’ is its bulletin of national and international headlines released each morning at 6.30am.

Bringing the Washington Post on board has brought Noa new attention and an uplift in users in the US. “We have seen really aggressive growth over the last year, especially since summer and on boarding the Washington Post. Users are in the thousands and streams in the hundreds of thousands per month.” Those numbers have a long way to go before Noa becomes a household name digital platform.

But this month it was profiled by Apple’s App Store in the US. “It was great to get that recognition – the editorial team picked us up and put us as one of the apps that they love. That helps in terms of getting the brand out there and getting users.”

Cracking the American market will be critical for Noa, which hopes that it can emulate the US radio giant Sirius XM in using the automotive sector to transform its public profile. “Their main route to market is coming pre-installed in vehicles when they are purchased,” says Hickey. “The owners get a couple of months for free and then they can subscribe if they want. It’s a tried and tested model.” The broad-based Sirius XM subscription offering combines news and rock channels, the Pandora streaming service and famous radio presenters such as Howard Stern.

Hickey concedes that the motor industry is split over the future of the audio entertainment systems planned for new vehicles. “There is almost a polarised view in the automotive space, where some manufacturers are saying we need to race as fast as we can to compete with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay… and the smaller and less premium manufacturers don’t tend to see it as much of a threat or are not putting resources into it.” Noa is in talks and working with a series of car makers from the UK, Germany and Asia over Noa’s possible future inclusion in new models as a pre-installed feature.

The ultimate success of the startup is dependent on it establishing its own brand recognition, rather than simply relying on gaining prominence through assembling an impressive stable of partner publishers (an achievement Hickey describes as “tick number one”).

His next step will be an international brand marketing campaign which he hopes to fund through a Series A funding round that he hopes might generate €3-4m. He says Noa is considering pursuing equity for media (where it would offer a media group a stake in the company in return for advertising credit).

In these endeavours he believes he has been helped by a note published this year by the firm of influential technology sector venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, setting out the case for investing in there next wave of consumer products in the audio ecosystem.

“That gets the eye of many VCs in the market and audio is now on the roadmap. Two or three years ago it was much more debatable as to what value was seen in it,” says Hickey, who launched Noa in 2017.

He hopes that the popularity of The Athletic, a US-based sports journalism subscription service which is trying to crack the UK market, and Readly, a platform developed in Sweden that hosts more than 4,500 magazine titles, is further evidence of a willingness to pay for quality journalism.

“We have built the foundations, we have got the publisher relationships across the board, we have shown that we can acquire users and turn them into subscribers,” he says. “We are proving the business model is here.”

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