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Tribune Digital Unit Launches Streaming-Audio News App with Robot and Human Voices

Newsbeat app positioned as a 'Spotify or Pandora for news'

Ready for a computer to deliver you a daily radio newscast?

Tribune Digital Ventures, the technology arm of Tribune Co., has launched Newsbeat, a news-aggregation app that sifts through around 7,000 stories per day from newspapers — including Tribune’s Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune — and other websites. Those articles are then converted into audio, using synthetic text-to-speech voices or in some cases human voiceovers, and delivered as an audio stream to users’ mobile phones.

The Newsbeat app is like a Spotify or Pandora for news, letting users personalize their newsfeed and jump to stories that most interest them, Tribune Digital Ventures president Shashi Seth said.

Seth said he got the idea for the project after wishing he could customize newsradio broadcasts. “I’m an ardent NPR fan, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to hit a ‘skip’ button to find the things I’m interested in?” said Seth, who previously led search technology teams at Yahoo, AOL and Google before joining TDV last year.

SEE ALSO: Tribune to Spin Off Newspapers Into Separate Company

Newsbeat lets users personalize their feed by selecting favorite publications, topics, news sections, sports teams and other criteria. Unlike traditional radio, listeners can also rewind if they miss part of a story and skip stories that don’t interest them.

Each story is delivered as a 60-90 second audio segment. Most are converted using a text-to-speech technology, which Seth claimed sounds “10 times better than Siri.” (He wouldn’t say which text-to-speech vendors TDV is working with.) For top stories, TDV sends the articles to a network of freelance voiceover artists, who read them and send the audio back for inclusion in the app. 

Currently, TDV acquires news from 600-plus sources, including national and local newspapers, hyperlocal community sources and other websites. It has direct licensing deals with some publishers, while it acquires other articles through syndication. Newsbeat also retrieves articles from the web via RSS feeds, in which case the app provides a link to the full story online.

TDV considered building a TV-like news video app, but Seth said initially the team wanted to focus on delivering an “eyes-free, hands-free experience” that was suited for commuters. Newsbeat provides traffic updates throughout the audiocast, a feature squarely aimed at people driving to work.

The app will force commuters — or other people on the go — to change their behavior and give up their existing diet of news or talk radio. But Seth said he expects the product’s customization and control features to appeal to a broad base of consumers. In early testing, he said, users “were surprised by the stitching together of the audio and said that it does sound a lot like an NPR or BBC newscast,” he said.

Newsbeat is a free app available for download on iOS and Android devices. Users can listen to the audio stream via headphones or pair the app with Bluetooth systems in cars. The app will run audio advertising, sold by a third-party firm (which Seth declined to identify), with ads playing about every 10 minutes.

Tribune Co. formed Tribune Digital Ventures in 2013. TDV, in addition to developing new digital products, also operates entertainment-metadata provider Tribune Media Services (TMS) and Gracenote, a music metadata specialist acquired from Sony for $170 million. TDV is based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Separately, Tribune Co. is in the process of spinning off its newspaper group. Seth said TDV will remain with Tribune Co., which will include its TV stations, following the divestiture.

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