NOA: The app that wants to read the news to you

It's all about time

Andrew Griffin
Friday 28 September 2018 17:38
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Gareth Hickey (left) and co-founder Shane Ennis
Gareth Hickey (left) and co-founder Shane Ennis

NOA doesn't want you to read the news. It wants to read it to you.

The Irish company's full name is News Over Audio and it does exactly what that suggests: collects up the best of the world's news and turns it into nuggets of audio, allowing you to catch up on them while listening rather than having to read at a screen.

The news you can get is already among the best in the world: it includes the Financial Times and Bloomberg, as well as The Independent. And it is continuing to grow, with other publishers that are among the world's biggest and most important, having announced in recent days that the Economist and the New York Times are arriving, too.

Audio has sometimes been presented as a threat to those news publishers, like video: if people are listening then they're probably not reading, and it is hard enough already for people to make time to keep up with the vast quantities of news that is happening and being written about every day. But NOA's pitch is that it's not a competition at all, and that audio can be about showing off some of the best traditional journalism in an entirely new setting.

While audio is perhaps the oldest of all forms of media, the ways it is being delivered to people isn't at all. The advent of Amazon's Alexa, for instance, heralded an entirely new form of listening within the home, favouring on-demand cuts of information that can be requested by shouting while doing the washing up; traditional radio still exists but it is increasingly being delivered over the internet when people ask, rather than as traditional broadcast.

And the growth of ways to listen has come with an expansion of the listening public, too. With on-demand audio, people have come to see (or hear) that there are various times of the day that go largely unfilled, and it's apps like NOA – as well as other major audio companies like Audible – that are rushing into stop them being so silent.

NOA works in a relatively simple way: its team take the best of their partners' written content, have a narrator record it, and push it out into the world. Its audience can then listen however and whenever they want, simply by opening up the app on their phone or asking Alexa to do it for them.

"The great thing about it is the time you have each day to consume visual content is limited," says Gareth Hickey, co-founder and CEO at NOA. You might take a quick look at a screen in the morning, and an hour or two in the evening. And that time can be filled up not just with news or other media like on demand television and Netflix, but also social media, emails and WhatsApp.

Audio, however, doesn't have to compete: it can be done while driving, walking, exercising or doing something else entirely, and so can be a complement rather than distraction.

About half of NOA's consumption comes between 7am and 9am. "That gap in the day there just gets a lot of traffic – it's people that are usually commuting."

There are of course many companies vying for that time too, many of them new. Everything from the shortest podcast to the longest of Audible's audiobook is intended to take on that market.

But there is an awful lot of that time, too, and it is often spent doing a variety of different things. That means that companies like NOA seeing themselves as complementing podcasts rather than challenging them.

That's useful become some companies like the New York Times have invested heavily in podcasts.

"They try much own that experience, and they're doing a great job with that. They're putting a huge amount of thought and time into getting that right."

Instead, NOA focuses on the traditional articles that continue to do so well for those publishers. It is not about the kind of lengthier chats that often make up the meat of podcasts, but rather taking the quality content that news organisations are already producing it and recording it so people can listen to it another way.

"The style of content that we tend to lean more and more towards is the opinion, analysis, features," he says. "The kind of articles that you might come across on a busy Monday afternoon and might not have the time to read."

When people do come to those articles, they tend to spend a decent amount of time: about 85 per cent of people coming to an article will finish it, and they'll stay for an average of four-and-a-half minutes.

NOA, of course, has some of the same struggles as every other news publisher. One of them is ensuring that people feel they can make their way through the vast amount of information that's out there in a way that's comprehensive and meaningful – without feeling completely overwhelming.

"One of the things we're moving towards has been an attempt to bring finish-ability to news topics," he says. It's all very well reading one piece about Brexit or business or whatever else, but with those huge issues it cane difficult to know where to start or where to end.

One approach that NOA has been taking is to gather those topics up into playlists. One about electric cars, for instance, might include a more general overview on the industry, a dive into the cobalt shortage that is threatening the batteries that power them, and a look at the latest scandal Tesla and Elon Musk have become embroiled in.

It all helps to make people feel like it's possible to reach the end of the news, even if it's just to find that some more news has happened. When there is such an often overwhelming amount of stories – and stories about those stories – NOA like other more traditional publishers in seeking ways to cut through the noise.

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