Google launches a new Google Assistant service called "Your News Update." It takes the idea of an algorithmically determined news feed – what you get from Facebook or on Google's news feed – and turns it into an audio stream. To play it, simply ask a Google smart speaker or assistant on your phone to "listen to the news."
Google uses the information it has learned about you over the years along with your location to customize a series of brief news updates from partners from which it has licensed audio. It hopes to promote an ecosystem it calls the "audio web," according to Liz Gannes, Google's product manager for audio news. These are not much like news pieces, which are similar to the news updates that can be heard on the radio.
Your news update replaces the current way of getting news updates from Assistant, which consists of a simple list of news sources. With that system you have to choose which sources you want and the order in which they are played.
Earlier you would have to ask for the news and hear the hourly update from NPR, then The Daily from The New York Times then CNN (or whatever news source you chose). You will now hear individual, topic-specific news pieces from Google's news partners. And instead of cycling hourly or daily, it will play based on these topics.
Google says that when your news update goes live, users will be able to choose either the new system or the original one.
Google has licensed audio from various news sources, including ABC, Cheddar The Associated Press CNN, Fox News Radio, PBS, Reuters WYNC and a bunch of local radio stations. It can then identify the content of these store's news by reading specific metadata they create for their stories and by using its computers to listen to the stories themselves. Google has paid its partners to work with the company to create their stories in this format.
Sound in hand, Google can then organize it into a news feed for you, just as it organizes a news feed on the web. For each story, read the outlet that produced it before it begins. It starts with a top national or international story or two, proceeds to local stories, then it tends to play stories that are more likely to be relevant to your interests. (For me, it meant stories about the Minnesota Vikings and tech.) After a while, the stories change formats from short updates of one to two minutes to longer, more podcast-like stories.
If it sounds a lot like what you get from the NPR One app, that's because it is. But Google is pulling from a larger pool of sources, and NPR is not one of them. That's one reason I won't be using Google's new system.
But the biggest problem I have with this type of news feed is that while an algorithmic list of stories makes sense on a screen, it is incredibly annoying when it is a linear stream of sound. On a screen, you can quickly scan through and read headings and sources, pick and choose what you prefer. On an audio stream, you have to constantly scream "Hello Google, skip" if you get a story that doesn't fit well.
I also worry that, as with news feeds online, this new audio news feed will amplify filter bubbles. Gannes says that "the goal of this is actually that the filter bubble bursts, in a way, because it doesn't hear all the news from one supplier." I heard from news sources I had never actively searched for.
Google's long-term vision is admirable. It is hoped to promote a vibrant ecosystem of openly accessible audio news on the web so that you can get audio stories to begin to be as discoverable as text stories are. But there is a significant problem with chicken-and-eggs: until there are more sources that work with Assistant and it can learn enough about users to give the right stories, it may not match the experience of just choosing your desired news provider and turning around the den.
In theory, if you skip enough stories or sources, Google's algorithm will learn your preferences. You can also brave Google Assistant's arcane and impenetrable setting systems to find preferences for your news update and prioritize or turn off different news sources.
Maybe if enough users do that, Google may be able to start a decent delivery cycle and demand for audio stories (and hopefully a better way to make money from all this). As much as I may like that vision, the last thing I want to do before having my morning coffee is to participate in an early version of the one that feels more like a beta test than a news broadcast.