Epstein: Platform will allow news consumers to dive deeper into audio stories on smart home devices

Expandable Audio Journalism would allow journalists flexibility between brief and in-depth reporting

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute has awarded seven fellowships for the 2019–20 academic year with projects to improve gun violence reporting, expand solutions-based journalism by local TV stations, help large and small newsrooms get the most out of push notifications, customize audio documentaries through voice commands, measure the community impact of online stories and preserve digital content that’s being lost.

During an experiment in 2018, the BBC gave audiences the opportunity to dive deeper into topics within an article, if they wanted, through a tool called Expander. Audiences could click on boxes within the articles to get more information. One reader was quoted as saying, “I like that, if you’re unfamiliar with something it’ll clarify that.”

Now, Immersive Media Producer Michael Epstein of Walking Cinema wants to give news consumers a similar opportunity to explore audio stories more in depth on smart home devices.

During his fellowship, Epstein is developing Expandable Audio Journalism (EAJ), a platform for producing audio stories that can expand or contract based on a person's interest level. Listeners will tell their smart speaker they want to hear more at a certain point in the story or respond to an Alexa voice prompt and the story naturally expands to give them more detail.

For instance, the smart speaker narrator could say, “There’s more to the story…” and the news consumer could say, “Tell me more,” to expand the story and hear more background or say, “I get it,” to condense the story.

During the fellowship, Epstein will also work with a news outlet to produce an expandable audio story and build tools that newsrooms can use to create EAJ content for a range of smart speakers.

More than 66 million Americans own smart speakers, according to Voicebot.ai and Voiceify research, and journalistic content is flooding these platforms. Now is a good time to “empower audiences to deeply explore stories that interest them,” says Epstein.

Other industries such as the audio fiction industry have seen success with interactive content on smart devices. Voice-controlled entertainment and gaming company Volley, which produces choose-your-own adventure audio games, has half a million monthly users and is growing at 70 percent a month, according to an article by Tech Crunch.

Epstein has worked as an interactive journalist for 20 years and has led the development of more than 20 separate news media project including audio and augmented reality walking tours, as well as Audible podcasts. Epstein is also an adjunct professor at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, where he has taught classes on subjects such as location-based storytelling media and augmented reality journalism.

Interactive content on these devices could present opportunities for both consumers and journalists

Currently much of the content on smart speakers is short, non-interactive news updates, says Epstein. However, some news outlets including The New York Times and NPR have experimented with interactive quizzes on smart home devices.

EAJ would give readers more of the reins and allow them to control how much information they consume, he says.

“What if going deeper into a story felt more like a natural process of asking a journalist questions?” says Epstein. “Smart speaker technology and rapid adoption rates make this kind of journalism possible and, to a degree, inevitable.”

At the same time, journalists would not be as confined by space constraints, says Epstein.

“As veteran long form journalist William Finnegan of the New Yorker told me, ‘I’m often frustrated by space constraints, and I tend to over-report, so there are always a hundred little stories between each piece that didn’t make it to print,’” says Epstein.

Smart home devices could allow journalists to include more of that reporting.

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