Google is rolling out a new service for Google Assistant that it’s calling “Your News Update.” It takes the idea of an algorithmically determined news feed — the kind you get from Facebook or on Google’s news feed — and turns it into an audio stream. To play it, you 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 alongside your location to custom-build a series of short news updates from partners from which it has licensed audio. It hopes to foster an ecosystem it’s calling “the audio web,” according to Liz Gannes, Google’s product manager of audio news. These aren’t podcasts so much as news bites, similar to the hourly 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 straightforward list of news sources. With that system, you have to choose which sources you want and what order they’re played in.
Before, 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 whichever news sources you chose). Now, you will hear individual, topic-specific news bites from Google’s news partners. And instead of it cycling hourly or daily, it will play based on those topics.
Google says that once Your News Update goes live, users will be able to choose between either the new system or the original one.
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 bunch of local radio stations. It can then identify the content of those outlets’ news stories 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.
Audio in hand, Google can then arrange it in a news feed for you, just as it arranges a news feed on the web. For each story, the outlet that produced it is read out before it begins. It starts with a top national or international story or two, moves on to local stories, then it tends to play stories that are more likely to be relevant to your interests. (For me, that meant stories about the Minnesota Vikings and tech.) After a while, the stories shift formats from short one- to two-minute updates into longer, more podcast-like stories.
If that 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 isn’t one of them. That’s one reason why I won’t be using Google’s new system.
A news feed on the web is fine; in linear audio, it’s annoying
But the main problem I have with this kind of news feed is that while an algorithmic list of stories makes sense on a screen, it’s incredibly annoying when it’s a linear stream of audio. On a screen, you can scan through quickly and read headlines and sources, picking and choosing what you prefer. On an audio feed, you have to constantly bark “Hey Google, skip” if you get a story that isn’t a good match.
I also have concerns that, as with news feeds on the web, this new audio news feed will reinforce filter bubbles. Gannes says that “the goal of this actually is filter bubble bursting, in a way, because it’s not hearing all the news from one provider.” I did hear from news sources I’d never have actively sought out in the past.
Google’s long-term vision is admirable. It’s hoping to foster a vibrant ecosystem of openly available audio news on the web so you can have audio stories begin to be as discoverable as text stories are. But there’s a significant chicken-and-egg problem: until there are more sources that work with Assistant and it can learn enough about users to provide the right stories, it can’t match the experience of just picking your preferred news provider and turning it on.
In theory, if you skip enough stories or sources, Google’s algorithm will learn your preferences. You can also brave the Google Assistant’s arcane and impenetrable settings system to find the preferences for Your News Update and prioritize or mute different news sources.
Maybe if enough users do that, Google might be able to kickstart a virtuous cycle of supply and demand for audio stories (and hopefully, in the process, a better way to monetize all of this will emerge). As much as I may like that vision, the last thing I want to do before I’ve had my morning coffee is participate in an early version of it that feels more like a beta test than a news broadcast.