How to make Ama­zon’s Alexa read your lo­cal news

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Gate­House has now launched more than 400 news web­sites on Ama­zon Echo/Alexa plat­form — a voice-con­trolled home speaker that among many other things al­lows users to voice-ac­ti­vate a flash brief­ing from a feed of lo­cal news from each site. The project came to­gether quickly, and we are now learn­ing and plan­ning next steps for th­ese quickly grow­ing voice-ac­ti­vated as­sis­tant plat­forms.

We asked two lead­ers of the project, Gate­House di­rec­tor of dig­i­tal prod­ucts, Ka­rina Pagano, and di­rec­tor of dig­i­tal de­vel­op­ment op­er­a­tions, Chris His­ter, about the project and next steps.

Why did Gate­House part­ner with Ama­zon on this project?

Ama­zon is re­ally the leader in the speaker/voice com­mand de­vice space with a huge num­ber of de­vices al­ready in mar­ket. The Echo and Echo Dot were Ama­zon’s top sell­ers over the hol­i­day sea­son — to the point where they’ve had trou­ble keep­ing them in stock.

Get­ting in early with Ama­zon gave us the op­por­tu­nity to take ad­van­tage of quite a bit of set up help from their team so we could make flash brief­ings for all the Gate­House sites avail­able as quickly as pos­si­ble. When all those Alexa users go look­ing for news up­dates, they’ll find their lo­cal news head­lines avail­able in our mar­kets. It’s ex­cit­ing to be able to reach those read­ers and de­liver rel­e­vant, lo­cal news head­lines in this new for­mat.

An­other ad­van­tage to get­ting to mar­ket quickly with Ama­zon is that we’ll now have a seat at the ta­ble to help shape how the flash brief­ing for­mat de­vel­ops, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble fu­ture mon­e­ti­za­tion plans.

What were the tech­ni­cal hur­dles for the de­vel­op­ment team?

The con­tent for our flash brief­ings is de­liv­ered to Ama­zon us­ing

JavaScript Ob­ject No­ta­tion — a syn­tax used to store and ex­change data. We use JSON on our new Garcia website tem­plate but the for­mat and stan­dards used by Ama­zon are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than ours or oth­ers we’ve worked with, so we had to ad­just our feeds to meet their spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

We also faced the chal­lenge of rolling this out across 400 plus sites in a short pe­riod of time. We needed to cre­ate a feed that could de­liver news­pa­per-spe­cific con­tent for each in­di­vid­ual site and also de­velop an ef­fec­tive way to QA all those feeds with­out re­view­ing each one man­u­ally. And, fi­nally, we needed to cre­ate a unique flash brief­ing icon for each site. In some cases, we had an app icon avail­able to re­pur­pose. To cre­ate the rest quickly, we went with a generic graphic that could be per­son­al­ized with each news­pa­per name.

What are the next steps with the plat­form?

Very soon we’ll be pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion on a new way news­rooms can use to write spe­cific blurbs for Alexa to read in place of the ar­ti­cle sum­mary or ini­tial para­graphs of the ar­ti­cle cap­tured by the feed to­day. We’ll also be an­nounc­ing a tax­on­omy sites can use to choose the spe­cific sto­ries added to a cu­rated flash brief­ing feed each day.

Cur­rently, our brief­ing feeds are read by Alexa through text-tospeech pro­cess­ing. The next step after cu­rated feeds will be to give news­rooms the op­tion to pro­duce flash brief­ing au­dio files where staff can read out the brief­ing in­stead of hav­ing it read by Alexa.

What has the re­sponse been, and how are you track­ing suc­cess?

Early re­sponse has been good. We’ve got­ten re­ally good trac­tion with the Prov­i­dence Jour­nal, Peoria Jour­nal Star, and Sara­sota Her­aldTri­bune flash brief­ings. We’re also see­ing strong play­back num­bers in re­la­tion to the num­ber of brief­ings en­abled, which shows that users who have en­abled the flash brief­ing skill are con­tin­u­ing to use it on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, rather than just check­ing it out once and not com­ing back.

Ama­zon doesn’t have self-ser­vice op­tions for re­port­ing in place just yet, but we’re re­ceiv­ing re­ports from them on a monthly ba­sis in the mean­time and keep­ing a close eye on how things are go­ing.

Will Gate­House strike a sim­i­lar part­ner­ship with Google and Google Home/As­sis­tant plat­form?

Yes, we’ve met with Google and plan to pur­sue brief­ings on their plat­form as well. They’re in beta with a cou­ple na­tional news providers and ex­pect to be ready to move into lo­cal news this spring. We’ll be keep­ing in touch with them and will re­visit the con­ver­sa­tion with them as soon as they’re ready.

Gate­House News­room is a dig­i­tal ed­i­to­rial re­source by Gate­House Me­dia. Our con­trib­u­tors high­light en­ter­pris­ing jour­nal­ism, dish the lat­est in so­cial me­dia strat­egy, de­mys­tify new dig­i­tal tools and com­ment on in­dus­try trends. Sign up for our weekly news­let­ter at Gate­House is one of the largest pub­lish­ers of lo­cally-based me­dia in the United States, reach­ing more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple each week through hun­dreds of news­pa­pers and dig­i­tal prod­ucts.

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