Smart speakers have no idea how to give us news

One of the most exciting things about a new kind of device is how little we know about what it’s good for. At this point, we basically know what a smartphone can do, but the possibilities for a voice-activated, internet-enabled speaker are still more or less untested. There are lots of ideas, some good and some bad, and we’re still figuring out which is which.

A new report from the Reuters Institute suggests that the current round of news apps may be one of the bad ideas. The institute’s survey finds that users simply aren’t enjoying the news briefings, and they’re taking a backseat to more concrete functions like information searches and immediate tasks. 46 percent of UK users listened to the briefings regularly, but only one percent listed it as the most valued function, and many offered specific complaints about overlong programs and confusing controls for skipping ahead. As Nieman Lab put it, there just wasn’t that much love for news content.

It’s particularly embarrassing because so many features are aimed at solving this exact problem. Alexa has a bunch of different Flash Briefings designed to give you a quick rundown of everything that’s happened, along with 90-second audio reports from ___ like Marketplace and Axios. Google Home has a whole set of custom news commands designed to let you skim through different stories or find stories on particular topics. A lot of time and energy from tech and media companies alike went into making this work — but for whatever reason, it just never came together.

The Reuters report gives us a few hints about why that is. A lot of the problem is the content itself: sometimes reports would be outdated, or mangled through awkward text-to-speech programs. Other reports were too long, spending five minutes on a story when 30 seconds would have been preferable.

Other problems seem like straightforward results of the voice interface. People care where their news comes from, but the audio-only interface makes it hard to keep track of who you’re listening to. Most listeners weren’t sure how to change the defaults, so even if there was an outlet they would have enjoyed, they couldn’t find it.

But the biggest problem is that we simply don’t know what we want. Smart speakers aren’t radios, and podcast-style shows aren’t suited for an interface that discourages browsing and library-building. Assistants are great at handling specific questions like “Alexa, who’s governor of Wisconsin?” — but walking through the most important events of the day is a different thing. It may be that smart speakers just aren’t any good at it.