Most of us know how delightful it is to hear a computer-generated song playlist that feels entirely personal. Now, Google wants to create a similar type of bespoke audio experience—not with music, but with news.
The company is adding some new features to its existing news aggregation service called Your News Update, which gathers news clips from different outlets and plays them in one continuous audio feed. Think of it like a Feedly or Flipboard-type service for spoken stories from your preferred news publications.
Google has updated the service to create a more fluid listening experience, so that sitting through an entire session doesn’t feel like you’re just working your way through a hodgepodge of disparate stories. Each personalized playlist is structured to mimic a news program typical of what you’d hear on public radio: short clips about the big headlines up front that gradually shift into longer, more detailed stories. The goal is to create a seamless 90-minute broadcast—a mix of radio, podcast snippets, and text-to-speech article translations—tailored to an audience of one.
“We want to expand what podcasting is to include more newsy content that you have to work less hard to find,” says Liz Gannes, product manager for Google News. “People want to listen where it's convenient to them. That's why podcasting is blowing up.”
The feature first rolled out last November in Google Assistant, albeit with more limited text-to-speech functionality. Today it’s available, along with a newly enhanced digital voice, in Google’s Podcasts app on Android. (Support within the Google Podcasts app on iOS is coming “soon,” Google says.)
Based on Google’s wealth of user data, your particular playlist might feature stories about sports teams you follow or—assuming you're allowing Google to track your location—news from local outlets. (Yes, it’s yet another service dependent on Google knowing as much about you as possible.) Google’s algorithms then hunt for keywords and topics in stories that are most likely to be connected to your interests.
The company has partnered with dozens of media outlets (including WIRED) to adapt and produce content for the service. Outlets that don’t participate directly can choose to add some lines of code to their stories that lets Google more easily analyze the text and have it be read by Google’s digital narrators. If a user wants more local news, they can ask for it directly via Google Assistant.
“Local is this incredibly important part of the news experience, and even more so in a news moment where you want to learn more about how the news is directly affecting you,” Gannes says. Having access to that news in one place makes it easier to call up when you need it. “Say, in a pandemic or wildfire, the local version of the news is really what hits close to home.”
In the previous iteration of Your News Update, transitions between stories were handled by Google Assistant, which would announce the outlet behind each story and its date of publication in a monotone robotic voice. Now, the service comes with its own “newscaster voice,” which was developed with the goal of capturing some of the nuance and emphasis you’d hear from a sentient news anchor. Text-to-speech stories are read by one of eight new voices that switch out for each new story. (There are male and female voices, but they’re only available in English for now.) The goal is to facilitate a smooth, unbroken chain of stories from different outlets that feels like one coherent newscast.
“It's a bunch of stories, but we don't want it to feel like we're just pulling stuff out of a hat,” says Hannah McBride, a conversation designer at Google. “So we have this voice that is sort of connecting it all. It introduces each topic and, in some cases, will even be really specific about what the story is about. It will guide you through the experience.”
Google says the voices will eventually be trained to reflect a variety of inflections and tones, but for now, there’s still no mistaking them for natural human speech patterns and enunciation.
Google’s latest audio efforts are surfacing nearly three years after the tech titan bought 60db, a news customization startup cofounded by former employees from Netflix and NPR. Since then, Google has hired teams of journalists and audio engineers to develop its sonic experiments.
Though guided by industry insiders, Google’s efforts still face the same challenges as any other news aggregator. While the ability to instantly conjure up local news by shouting at your Google Assistant whenever you please might be handy, consolidating a bevy of news sources into one place could mean the listener is less likely to seek out the original outlet. (Google does pay for some of the stories in its Your News Update service, but it doesn’t compensate outlets for text-to-speech conversions.)
“The typical news consumer that comes to your site through an aggregator is not the kind of news consumer that is likely to become a subscriber or be spending much time reading other stories,” says Phil Napoli, a media researcher at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “They are not necessarily the kind of news consumers that you're able to build the economics of your business around.”
Then there’s the issue of filter bubbles, especially in an age of ever-increasing polarization and wildly different interpretations of events. After all, Google knows a thing or two about how to influence people’s attention. Any personalized news feed composed of bits and pieces of stories runs the risk of missing some of the greater context surrounding an issue.
“If you're flipping through a newspaper, there are stories you might end up reading that you would not have read otherwise,” Napoli says. “It’s a very different model from the aggregator presenting only those things that history tells it you will read. It becomes this incredible self-fulfilling prophecy about what we’re interested in from a news standpoint.”
Google’s News Update team says its feed personalization is based on freshness, keywords, and location, rather than specific headlines or an outlet’s political leanings.
“The world is not available in this product,” Gannes says. “This is not like an open platform yet. It is a group of news providers. We have some things that are more opinionated, but we don't have everything that is more opinionated. It tends to be a little bit more straight news.”
The Your News Update expansion is available in the US. Company reps say Google is looking to expand the feature internationally, but there’s no set date yet. As the service is dependent on specific content and partnerships with publishers, a release outside of the US could be a ways off.