Black Friday 2018 will likely change how journalists do their jobs

By Ren LaForme
The Poynter Institute

By the end of the year, almost half of all U.S. consumers will own a smart speaker.

I think they’re creepy. If you’re a reporter, you likely agree (based on highly informal polling). But our audiences don’t.

Adobe estimates that 32 percent of American consumers already speak with Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant in their homes, up from 14 percent at the beginning of the year. And thanks to steep Black Friday discounts and top spots on hot gift lists, that number is expected to rise to include half of all Americans by the time Santa scurries back up the chimney.

Most people are using smart speakers for basic tasks, such as music, weather forecasts, alarms and reminders.

But a growing number (46 percent, according to Adobe’s study) use them to check the news.

And why wouldn’t they? Asking the little device on your nightstand to tell you about the world is infinitely easier than searching Google, opening up a news app or even flipping to a TV channel. A quick scan of Amazon’s smart speaker news offerings shows that heavy hitters like NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, ESPN, Fox News and more all offer some sort of news brief at the whim of a few magic words.

But what are those words? The ways people speak to smart devices could have big implications for how journalists work.

A user is vastly more likely to say, “Alexa, what was the score of yesterday’s Buffalo Bills game?” than something like, “Alexa, what does the Buffalo News have to say about last night’s Bills game?” (Trick question — they were on a bye week!)

With little to no input from a visual interface (Amazon and Google both now offer smart speakers with built-in screens, but they’re meant to be secondary), those vocal searches are the only way audiences will be able to find our work on these soon-to-be-ubiquitous devices.

At first, that could mean journalists write headlines and leads with search in mind. But it could lead to structuring entire stories around common questions.

When someone asks about, for instance, what led to the war in Syria, would a typical news story do the job? For early adopters with few expectations, maybe. But over time, users will come to expect a thoughtfully curated audio answer to their questions. Journalists have both the sourcing and the storytelling chops to offer that in a compelling package.
And that will require a whole different type of story.

P.S. If you’re thinking about picking up a smart device for your home, check out Mozilla’s guide to creepy holiday gifts. The guide labels the three biggest smart devices as “super creepy!” and, rather than generic technophobic fearmongering, they offer specific reasons for those ratings.

Author: Rachel Howell

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