WNMC19: NYT, BBC, LAT, Expressen: Understanding the voice space.



WNMC19: NYT, BBC, LAT, Expressen: Understanding the voice space.

It was a throwaway line Expressen TV editor-in-chief Thomas Mattsson tells me he thought of at the last moment, but it resonated: "Text will be the new print," he said.

Meaning audiences - especially young ones - soon wouldn't read anything they could watch or listen to; wouldn't write when they could speak.

With millions of voice assistants being given away in the battle for ubiquity between Amazon, Google and Apple, the uptake of voice is accelerating apace. People have devices they don't yet have uses for but can't do without. These were among the messages from a succession of speakers at last weekend's WAN-Ifra World News Media Congress in Glasgow.

New York Times president and chief executive Mark Thompson - a must-hear speaker on Sunday afternoon - told how they had launched The Daily "as a tool to engage an audience", and was launching the complementary episodic The Weekly documentary TV series on FX and Hulu that night.

He says the aim is to first find the audience - in this case "very young" - then to engage them, and then find the money without always knowing the potential. On one occasion he was confronted with making a commitment to BMW on a programme for which he "didn't know whether the potential was a lot or a little. We guaranteed them 750,000 listeners, while having no idea, and delivered 43 million," he said.

Of efforts to "make ourselves available to a younger audience," he said the paper still looked too slow and cautious, "but I think we're making progress."

Earlier at a session on next-generation journalism and storytelling, NYT research and development lead Kourtney Bitterly said the publisher - "constantly looking for signals" - had sent 20 interviewers to cities including Seattle, Miami and Detroit to grasp not only what they would like to hear from the masthead, but also how; whether the delivery should be mood-related and what boundaries should be placed on assistant devices.

"We found uses not yet established - which equals opportunity - as well as people battling news fatigue who asked, 'why do I need to know'," she says. Six new experiences for Alexa came out of the project, plus the prospect of Spanish language content.

Head of news innovation at BBC Voice, Zoe Murphy said she expected voice to be "the next biggest shift since the iPhone". About a fifth of UK adults had access to a device, while Alibaba and Baidu were dominant in China and Google was claiming a billion for its Assistant technology, many through Android phones.

She says talking rather than typing is the next major shift, adding that we will learn more about individuals who are able to ask for the info they need.

The BBC sees voice as a key point of strategy and has been taking a different approach to its introduction - including the way in which interviews recruits. "It's almost like being a start-up in an established organization - a development squad, we have all the skills and like to be able to respond."

With BBC News as 'default news' on Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, she says the UK broadcaster is in a hugely privileged position. "Recruit differently, and try to find the best people, passionate people."

One interactive pilot has been in India - in Hindi, a market considered "the next billion users" - where two Hindi bulletins were produced a day. "All are experimental," she says... including the issue of searches being made in English but wanting responses returned in Hindi. With about 400 million mobile phones, knowing your audience is crucial, as are prompts and a new "sonic identity" for voice assistants. "Test early and often," she said.

Murphy says in a rare opportunity to get in early, there are unique questions: "What if you could interrupt a voice broadcast to ask a question?"

Relatively new in to her job as product manager for newsletters and messaging at the Los Angeles Times, Kim Brode has shared additional challenges for staff ahead of its handover to a new billionaire owner. Not just the transfer from the previous owner's systems, but a range of other things of which she later frankly admits, "it's amazing there are still people who care, after all they've been through".

She says voice needs a major change of attention, and an understanding of the difference between audience and community, real people who care and are engaged, "however, communities are often an afterthought," she says.

With 20 newsletters (but no process), she urges listening, evaluating, planning, and involving communities, and teaches community mapping - defining, understanding audience needs, and identifying people. Messaging has a high open rate, and forms (such as Google Forms) are useful, together with events - including a book club - which provide opportunities for 'in person listening'.

Bode says she's always asking herself, "who else should I be talking to - I used to be a reporter, so I understand that" - and categorises "not by issues and opportunities, but who I've spoken to and who I need to talk to."

Getting people's time is challenging - especially with the need to talk to other managers - as are bottlenecks, frustrating when you're waiting for dependencies.

During the previous night's gala dinner she had collected an award earned by another team for best digital marketing campaign, for Dirty John, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-me-dirty-john/ "Mobile is part of something we're doing," she says, "but how do you bring that back into our organisation, bring people back into the brand?"

For Expressen's Mattsson, the focus is TV: Video is key on big stories and "autoplay rules" with the Swedish national paper prioritising its digital TV service over print - producing more than 100 videos a day in addition to a cooperation with CNN - and was unlikely to again produce a print-only special. "Typically they're one man teams with iPhones, and if our clips are too clear, they're probably too old."

How and who? Mattsson tells of the occasion when none of his managers would agree who would be in key teams: "I wrote the press release announcing it and locked them in a room with some food until they agreed names among themselves," he says. "Then I sent it out."

He says "soon no-one under 15 will read text," urging, "do it before it's too late".

Peter Coleman

Pictured (above, from top): Kim Bode with Thomas Mattsson; Kourtney Bitterly; Mark Thompson with Startup Lab's Tina Stiegler; a slide from Zoe Murphy'spresentation
On our homepage: Kim Bode