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Tribune's Newsbeat App Lets Robots Read You the News While You Drive

It's like radio, if you swapped in software for people.

Tribune Co.
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

There are many, many news apps out there. If you’re going to come out with a new one, what do you do to make it … new?

Here’s Tribune Co.’s answer: Mash up a news reader with news radio, and add some nifty personalization features. They’re calling it Newsbeat, and it’s available now for Android and iOS machines.

It’s the first app from Tribune Digital Ventures, a newish unit run by former Yahoo product guy Shashi Seth, who says he’ll have more stuff to show off this year.

I’ve only seen a brief demo of Newsbeat, so I can’t tell you if it really works. And the individual component parts may not seem that compelling, because versions of them are available in lots of places. But the whole thing does sound interesting: Tribune thinks it has an app that will appeal to car-bound commuters who like listening to news, but want something tailored to their individual interests.

As always, my advice is to go play with the app rather than read about the app. But if you’re still with me, here’s the basic idea:

  • Newsbeat offers up a linear, skippable feed of news stories from different sources, most of them traditional news outlets like Tribune’s own newspapers. Its designers assume that most of the time you’re going to be driving or otherwise occupied, so it reads the first part of the stories to you — sometimes using a pre-recorded human’s voice, sometimes with a Siri-like robot.
  • Newsbeat will let you pick and choose stuff you want to hear in advance. But its designers assume that most people will just start using it without customizing the feed, so as they listen to some stories and fast forward to others, the app should get a better sense of what you want, and start playing different stuff for you, à la Pandora.
  • Newsbeat will also personalize other information for its users, giving them weather and traffic reports tailored for their specific geography. It focuses on a 10-kilometer radius, so if you start out your morning in Montclair, New Jersey, it won’t tell you about a fender-bender in Brooklyn. Eventually, it may get more sophisticated, and start cueing up news stories when it thinks your commute is about to start.
  • Newsbeat is free. Which means you’ll hear ads every 10 minutes or so.

I think this one may take some time to get into shape. In the brief demo I saw and heard, Newsbeat’s text-to-speech voice effect ranged from pretty lifelike to something that reminded me of Radiohead.

And even though Newsbeat is going to give me lots of options when it comes to news stories and sources, I have a hunch that Twitter and the rest of the filter bubble have conditioned me to expect stuff that’s much more specific than what it has to offer, at least for now.

But I’m not the demo, anyway. When I head to work, I take the subway, so I don’t spend 50 minutes a day — or much more — in my car, like lots of Americans.

If I did, I might be just fine with 90-second news summaries about stuff I cared about, even if it comes from a voice that’s not ready for NPR. This could also get much more interesting if and when it starts showing up as a built-in app in new cars’ dashboards.

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