How Amazon’s Echo Has Changed The Way I Get My News

Some thoughts on structured conversations, access to information and the future of on-demand audio.

When I pre-ordered an Amazon Echo I had no idea how much it would change my media consumption habits. I saw it primarily as a bluetooth speaker that could quickly tell me how many ounces are in a cup while I’m cooking. But after almost a year of owning an Echo I’m amazed by how it has shifted how I access news and information, creating a layer of on-demand audio that I find myself relying on more and more.

I’ve been taking some notes, and wanting to write about this for awhile, but today’s edition of Nick Quah’s excellent Hot Pods newsletter finally gave me the nudge I needed to jot down my thoughts. He touches on how quickly the Echo is becoming a platform for everything from reading Kindle books aloud to listening to your local public radio station. Earlier this month, writing from the Consumer Electronic’s Show The Verge even suggested that the Echo was driving a “stealth takeover of the smart home.” (The Echo runs Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant software, but for the sake of simplicity I’m just going to refer to the Echo here).

The Basics

My local public radio station has never had great reception in my home and so when I bought the Echo I expected to stream the station over bluetooth via my phone. But, thanks to the Tune-in app, which is built into the Echo, I can just ask it to play any local radio station and it finds the stream. The Tune-in integration also gives me access to most of the podcasts I listen to on a regular basis. So while I’m up to my elbows in suds washing dishes I can just say, “Play the most recent episode of 99% Invisible,” and it starts to play.

The Echo is also fun. My kids ask it to tell them jokes and play Jeopardy on the device. Perhaps because their dad is an audio nerd, my kids have also recently fallen in love with audio books. For those we’ve bought on Audible, or that I’ve uploaded to my Amazon music library, they just have to ask and the Echo begins playing Cat and the Hat or the BFG.

Local News and On-Demand Audio

However, one of the features I don’t see talked about much, but which I really like, is the Echo’s “flash briefing.” When you ask for your flash briefing Amazon delivers “pre-recorded updates from popular broadcasters (such as NPR, BBC News, and the Economist), the latest news headlines from The Associated Press, and weather information from AccuWeather.” These briefings are akin to the headlines that NPR plays at the top of the hour, and give a quick update about some of the biggest stories happening right now. Even though I spend a lot of my day online, consuming media, I really appreciate these quick summaries, which I listen to while I’m packing the kids’ lunches or cleaning the kitchen.

Right now, the updates are fairly generic, but I could imagine further integration with NPR One, which could deliver updates from local stations. Perhaps I could choose updates from my local station and the local station where I grew up and where most my family still lives, or the local station where I’m going on vacation next week. And, taking a cue from the Circa news app, what if the Echo knew what stories you had already heard and offered to give you an update if there was new information or developments.

What if local newsrooms beyond NPR stations could record weekly or daily five minute briefings that could be delivered via the Echo, through Siri and others? Local information is already starting to come to the Echo — Amazon recently started letting people get info on local businesses with Yelp and offers sports updates and local traffic info too.

What’s Possible With Open Data and the Echo?

What if I could get local civic info just by asking a question like “Is there a parking ban tonight?” “Is it paper or glass recycling tomorrow?” “Where is my polling place?” What if I could get safety or emergency information like asking it to call 911 or asking which local ER has the shortest wait time (using a data set from somewhere like ProPublica)?

All of this is stuff I can find online via my phone or laptop, but there is something about the Echo experience that is really alluring and useful. Should local newsrooms rush into making mini-podcasts for the Amazon Echo? No. But should we be thinking about how we can use the resources of newsrooms to offer new kinds of services to our communities via new platforms? Yes.

As Nick Quah notes in his newsletter, “It’s a non-traditional way to interface with the Internet; not through keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but through structured conversation.” For me, the Echo is less about listening to Pandora and podcasts, and more about answering questions. This is an opening for people already working in data journalism and structured journalism to give people other ways of interacting with their stories.

Quah writes that the Echo is an argument for podcasters to be “thinking beyond headphones” to consider all the ways people might encounter or access podcasts. News used to be contained primarily in fairly rigid containers — newspapers and broadcast signals — but today news has the potential to reach people — and to be of use to them — in so many new ways.

I’m curious, how do you use your Echo? What kinds of local news and information would you want to access via the Echo?

(A note on the Amazon Echo and privacy: I am a privacy advocate with deep concerns about how companies use our personal data, and there are very real questions about how devices like the Echo and our mobile phones listen to and store conversations. Rory Carroll wrote about some of those concerns for the Guardian last year, and his own conflicted feelings about using the device. It is worth noting that you can delete your history of interactions with the Echo, but we should also keep asking hard questions about privacy issues of this and other devices that increasingly connect us constantly to the Internet.)

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