Playlists and front page readings: The Washington Post has big plans for audio articles as it begins Amazon Polly roll-out

Washington Post audio plans

The Washington Post is plotting a series of new audio article features after it recently introduced Amazon Polly technology to its audience.

The Post, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, this week announced that all of its technology articles are now available to listen to through Polly, a service that aims to transform written text into lifelike speech, on desktop and mobile devices. More sections of the title’s coverage will be made available through Polly in the coming months.

The Post last July made all of its articles available in audio form on Android and Apple mobile devices. This was enabled by in-built Android and iOS text-to-speech technology. Going forward, where Polly audio is available for articles, it will replace Android and iOS text-to-speech functionality.

Alongside the roll-out of Polly, the Post will be working on a number of new features to improve its audio offering, according to Kat Downs Mulder, the title’s managing editor for digital.

In an interview with Press Gazette, she told how the Post’s audience could soon be able to listen to content from newspaper front pages and compile playlists of articles.

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

“A big focus of ours is going to be to extend the convenience of the features,” she said. “So not just being able to listen to an individual article, but being able to create playlists of articles, or listen to your saved articles, or listen to all the articles from the front page of the newspaper or from our magazine…

“We want to make the experience a lot smoother for [our audience]. I do think there’s going to continue to be a demand for these convenience features.”

Downs Mulder said that Post ‘readers’ have “reacted really well” to its audio offering so far. Subscribers listening to audio articles on its apps “engaged more than three times longer with our content,” she said.

“It’s really convenient to listen, especially when you’re not in a position to read. Whether you’re getting ready in the morning or you’re in the car or you’re on a walk, taking care of your dog – whatever you might be doing.

“The audio advantage is that you can still have access to the article. And so that’s where that deeper engagement comes from. People can really spend that time listening when they’re not in a great position to read. And we do find that people who use it tend to engage with it a lot.

“So one of our goals in expanding the feature to our website, both on our mobile site and our desktop site, and improving the feature set and the quality of the sound, is just to get more people using it – so that they can take advantage of that listening when you’re too busy to read…

“So we’re looking forward to seeing more of the stats as we roll it out more. They look pretty good so far.”

She is hopeful that Amazon Polly will prove even more popular than the iOS and Android technology that is currently used. Polly “is a better voice – it’s a smoother, more human-sounding voice. It still sounds like a mechanised voice, an automated voice. But I think it’s a bit smoother and more natural.”

The Washington Post, like many other large publishers, produces several podcasts. Will audio articles be competing against podcasts for people’s time?

“I think they serve different needs,” said Downs Mulder. “I think it’s a little bit up for debate, how that will end up in the long term. But our podcasts are much more narrative – interviews with reporters, conversations between people, much more highly produced than what you would get through the reading of an article itself. A lot more context.”

She added that audio articles are more “straightforward” and can be useful for people who “just want the information – they don’t necessarily want a conversation or a hosted experience or something like that. I feel like there is a different use case.”

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, how will a return to offices affect the consumption of audio journalism?

I think it’s going to continue to help,” said Downs Mulder. “People’s lives are going to look different, but they’re still going to have a lot of hands-free time – whether that’s commuting time, sitting in the office, walking the dog, cooking their dinner.

“So there’s still going to be a lot of opportunities for people to engage with audio content, whether that’s in the form of podcasts, or whether that’s in the form of audio articles. So I think the demand will continue to exist, and probably to grow, as these technologies get better and better, and we put them on more and more articles.”

Downs Mulder added that audio articles may in the future be able to carry advertising. “It’s definitely a possibility,” she said. “It’s definitely something that’s on our radar and it is possible.”

Top photo credit: Shutterstock/ Henk Vrieselaar

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