GateHouse has now launched more than 400 news websites on Amazon Echo/Alexa platform — a voice-controlled home speaker that among many other things allows users to voice-activate a flash briefing from a feed of local news from each site. The project came together quickly, and we are now learning and planning next steps for these quickly growing voice-activated assistant platforms.

We asked two leaders of the project, GateHouse director of digital products, Karina Pagano, and director of digital development operations, Chris Hister, about the project and next steps.

Why did GateHouse partner with Amazon on this project?

Amazon is really the leader in the speaker/voice command device space with a huge number of devices already in market. The Echo and Echo Dot were Amazon’s top sellers over the holiday season — to the point where they’ve had trouble keeping them in stock.

Getting in early with Amazon gave us the opportunity to take advantage of quite a bit of set up help from their team so we could make flash briefings for all the GateHouse sites available as quickly as possible. When all those Alexa users go looking for news updates, they’ll find their local news headlines available in our markets. It’s exciting to be able to reach those readers and deliver relevant, local news headlines in this new format.

Another advantage to getting to market quickly with Amazon is that we’ll now have a seat at the table to help shape how the flash briefing format develops, including possible future monetization plans.

Echo, Kitchen

What were the technical hurdles for the development team?

The content for our flash briefings is delivered to Amazon using JavaScript Object Notation — a syntax used to store and exchange data. We use JSON on our new Garcia website template but the format and standards used by Amazon are a little different than ours or others we’ve worked with, so we had to adjust our feeds to meet their specifications.

We also faced the challenge of rolling this out across 400 plus sites in a short period of time. We needed to create a feed that could deliver newspaper-specific content for each individual site and also develop an effective way to QA all those feeds without reviewing each one manually. And, finally, we needed to create a unique flash briefing icon for each site. In some cases, we had an app icon available to repurpose. To create the rest quickly, we went with a generic graphic that could be personalized with each newspaper name.

What are the next steps with the platform?

Very soon we’ll be providing information on a new way newsrooms can use to write specific blurbs for Alexa to read in place of the article summary or initial paragraphs of the article captured by the feed today. We’ll also be announcing a taxonomy sites can use to choose the specific stories added to a curated flash briefing feed each day.

Currently, our briefing feeds are read by Alexa through text-to-speech processing. The next step after curated feeds will be to give newsrooms the option to produce flash briefing audio files where staff can read out the briefing instead of having it read by Alexa.

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What has the response been, and how are you tracking success?

We’ve seen some initial numbers, and are eagerly awaiting our first full month reports which should be available soon for sites that launched in December and then in March for sites that launched just after the beginning of the year.

Early response has been good. We’ve gotten really good traction with the Peoria Journal Star and Sarasota Herald-Tribune flash briefings, likely due to some additional promotion beyond the article and Our Picks placement. We’re also seeing strong playback numbers in relation to the number of briefings enabled, which show us that users who have enabled the flash briefing skill are continuing to use it on a regular basis, rather than just checking it out once and not coming back.

Amazon doesn’t have self-service options for reporting in place just yet, but we’re receiving reports from them on a monthly basis in the meantime — and requesting on demand reports as needed — to keep a close eye on how things are going.

Will GateHouse strike a similar partnership with Google and Google Home/Assistant platform?

Yes, we’ve met with Google and plan to pursue briefings on their platform as well. They’re in beta with a couple national news providers and expect to be ready to move into local news this spring. We’ll be keeping in touch with them and will revisit the conversation with them as soon as they’re ready.

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