Google is providing a new service for Google Assistant called "Your News Update." In the process, the idea of an algorithmically determined message feed – the type that you receive from Facebook or from Google's news feed – is transformed into an audio stream. To play it, just ask a smart Google speaker or assistant on your phone to listen to the news.
Google uses the information it has received from you over the years, in addition to your location, to customize a series of short films. News updates from partners licensed to listen to the audio. According to Liz Gannes, Google's product manager for audio news, the company wants to promote an ecosystem known as the "audio web". These are less podcasts than news bites, similar to the hourly news updates that are heard on the radio.
Your News update replaces the current method of getting News updates from Assistant, which consists of a simple list of news sources. With this system you have to choose which sources you want and in what order they are played.
Previously, you would have had to ask for the news and hear the hourly update from NPR, then The Daily from The New York Times then CNN (or your chosen news sources). Now you can hear individual topic-specific news bites from the Google News partners. And instead of cycling hourly or daily, it plays on these topics.
Google indicates that users can choose between the new or the original system after launching their news update.
Google has licensed audio from a variety of news sources, including ABC, Cheddar, The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News Radio, PBS, Reuters, WYNC and a number of local radio stations. It can then identify the content of these outlets' messages by reading certain metadata it creates for its messages and by listening to the messages on its own computers. Google has paid its partners to work with the company to create their stories in this format.
Audio in hand, Google can then arrange it in a newsfeed for you just as it provides a newsfeed in the web. For each story, the point of sale that produced it is read out before it starts. It starts with one or two national or international top stories, goes on to local stories and then rather plays stories that are more relevant to your interests. (For me, that meant stories about the Minnesota Vikings and the tech.) After a while, the formats change from short one to two minute updates to longer, podcast-like stories.
If this sounds very similar What you get from the NPR One app is because it is. However, Google uses a larger source pool, and NPR is not one of them. This is one of the reasons why I do not use the new Google system.
The main problem with this kind of newsfeed, however, is that while an algorithmic list of stories makes sense on a screen, it is incredibly annoying for linear audio. On one screen, you can quickly search for headlines and sources and choose what you prefer. In an audio feed you have to constantly bark "Hey, google, skip" when you hear a story that does not suit me well.
I also have concerns that this new audio news feeds like on news feeds on the web reinforcing the filter bubbles. Gannes says that "the goal is for filter bubbles to burst in some ways because not all messages are retrieved from a provider." I have heard of news sources that I have never actively sought in the past.
Google's long-term vision is admirable. We hope to create a living ecosystem of openly available audio messages on the web so that audio stories can be found as easily as text stories. However, there is a significant chicken and egg problem: as long as there are no other sources that work with Assistant, and there is not enough information about users to provide the right stories, it can not match the experience of simply selecting your preferred news provider and activate it
If you theoretically skip enough stories or sources, the Google algorithm will learn your preferences. You can also defy the secret and impenetrable Google Assistant settings system to determine your message update settings and prioritize or mute various news sources.
If enough users do, Google may be able to initiate a positive care cycle and demand for audio stories (and hopefully, this will provide a better way to monetize all of this). As much as I like that vision, the last thing I want to do before I drink my morning coffee is attending an early version of it that feels more like a beta test than a news show.