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The New York Times wants to use Amazon’s Alexa to reach new listeners

Smart speakers are fast becoming a fixture in many US households and The New York Times is on it. This weekend, the paper is launching a slew of new audio products designed for Alexa-enabled devices, including a daily news briefing, weekly quiz, and audio content tied to coverage in its Sunday print edition.

The flagship product is undoubtedly the daily briefing, which will be a three-minute segment hosted by Michael Barbaro, star of the paper’s break-out news podcast The Daily (a 20-something-minute show with millions of monthly downloads). Speaking to RR-Magazine, the NYT’s voice editor, Dan Sanchez, says this briefing will be “predominantly” repurposed from The Daily, but tweaked to fit the brevity of the format.

Numerous flash briefings are already available on Alexa devices from outlets like BBC News. But they’ve failed to really engage the public. One survey in the UK found that while 46 percent of users listened to news briefings regularly, only 1 percent considered them their smart speaker’s most valued function.

Sanchez says the NYT will try to overcome this by recreating the characteristics that make its podcasts successful. “One thing we tried to do is to use that same narrative storytelling technique that’s in The Daily but in micro form,” says Sanchez. “So we’re not just reading you a set of headlines, but actually trying to form an emotional connection.”

In order to alert readers to this new content, there will be a big push in this Sunday’s print edition. Prompts scattered throughout the paper will encourage readers to ask Alexa about related audio content, including a roundup of the week’s best pop music, book recommendations from the paper’s critics, and introductions to new travel destinations.

“We’ve been interested in voice technology for a while and we know that discoverability is a challenge. It’s hard for people to figure out what’s even available,” says Sanchez. “But we know that we have this tool at our disposal — the print paper — that we can use as a springboard for these experiences.”

However, unlike the daily news briefing, these prompts won’t necessarily become a regular fixture. “We are planning to measure the success of these skills based on promotion in week one in the paper,” says Sanchez. “Whether we continue to do that remains to be seen.”

The final product in the company’s new audio lineup is one that takes most advantage of smart speakers’ unique features. It’s an interactive multiple-choice quiz which will challenge listeners with questions about the week’s news. Sanchez says this type of content is “most interesting, but the most underdeveloped” on smart speakers. “But one of the most popular formats is games, specifically trivia, so we wanted to tap into that.”

Taken together, the new products represent an interesting experiment for The New York Times, a paper that continues to grow its digital subscriptions amid the industry’s wider (and often terminal) problems with shrinking ad revenue and readership. Audio content won’t necessarily drive subscriptions, but it could be a relatively easy way for the paper to reach millions of new listeners before — maybe — turning them into readers.

You can listen to the Times’ new flash briefing by saying “Alexa, enable The New York Times briefing” and then “Alexa, what’s in the news?” You can play the quiz every Friday by saying “Alexa, play The New York Times News Quiz.”

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