November 19, 2018

By the end of the year, almost half of all U.S. consumers will own a smart speaker.

I think they’re creepy. If you’re a reporter, you likely agree (based on highly informal polling). But our audiences don’t.

Adobe estimates that 32 percent of American consumers already speak with Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant in their homes, up from 14 percent at the beginning of the year. And thanks to steep Black Friday discounts and top spots on hot gift lists, that number is expected to rise to include half of all Americans by the time Santa scurries back up the chimney.

Most people are using smart speakers for basic tasks, such as music, weather forecasts, alarms and reminders.

But a growing number (46 percent, according to Adobe’s study) use them to check the news. And why wouldn’t they? Asking the little device on your nightstand to tell you about the world is infinitely easier than searching Google, opening up a news app or even flipping to a TV channel. A quick scan of Amazon’s smart speaker news offerings shows that heavy hitters like NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, ESPN, Fox News and more all offer some sort of news brief at the whim of a few magic words.

But what are those words? The ways people speak to smart devices could have big implications for how journalists work.

A user is vastly more likely to say, “Alexa, what was the score of yesterday’s Buffalo Bills game” than something like, “Alexa, what does the Buffalo News have to say about last night’s Bills game?” (Trick question — they were on a bye week!)

With little to no input from a visual interface (Amazon and Google both now offer smart speakers with built-in screens, but they’re meant to be secondary), those vocal searches are the only way audiences will be able to find our work on these soon-to-be-ubiquitous devices.

At first, that could mean journalists write headlines and leads with search in mind. But it could lead to structuring entire stories around common questions.

When someone asks about, for instance, what led to the war in Syria, would a typical news story do the job? For early adopters with few expectations, maybe. But over time, users will come to expect a thoughtfully curated audio answer to their questions. Journalists have both the sourcing and the storytelling chops to offer that in a compelling package.

And that will require a whole different type of story.

P.S. If you’re thinking about picking up a smart device for your home, check out Mozilla’s guide to creepy holiday gifts. The guide labels the three biggest smart devices as “super creepy!” and, rather than generic technophobic fearmongering, they offer specific reasons for those ratings.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS: We’ve written about libraries that are hosting newsrooms, that they’re more widely trusted than journalists and even about how one librarian cleaned up a news desert. That’s all well and cool, but did you know that the New York Public Library has transcribed restaurant menus, dish by dish, from the 1840s to the present? That’s about 45,000 food items, a quarter of which are available for anyone to view online. Last Thanksgiving, Taxonomy analyst Kelly Garrett poked at the data for insights about America’s greatest eating holiday across the ages and found that dishes with turkey, pumpkin and cranberry oddly spiked around the turn of the 20th century.

  • Want more T-Day insights? FiveThirtyEight surveyed its audience and found that America’s regions enjoy different side dishes. I’m in the land of mac and cheese, but I grew up with squash. Are you guys in the West alright? Salad, really?!

WEATHER TO WATCH: A few months ago, The Weather Channel went live with an anchor in the middle of a tornado. Then they threw someone into a surge of water caused by a hurricane, and then fires in California. All came out unscathed because the Weather Channel had simulated these disasters with technology originally created to build video games. And they’re at it again, this time to put football fans in the middle of a field during various weather conditions. Maybe a dash of perspective will cut back on armchair quarterbacks. I wouldn’t bet on it.

HIDDEN FIGURES: Every time you interact with this newsletter in some way, some analytics tool buried deep in the platform records it. Metrics, like if and when you open the email, which of the links you click and whether you choose to unsubscribe (please, no!) are all fairly easy to track. More actionable metrics are just out of reach. If I was using MailChimp, I’d try out this newsletter benchmarking tool from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. It grabs six key metrics that matter to both the editorial and business types: overall list size, list composition, overall open rate, distribution of open rates, percentage of your list that opens 80 percent of the time or more, and percentage of your list that hasn’t opened in the past year. Then it gives you the average number for other users of the tool so you can see how you stack up. Is tool jealousy a thing? I want this.

SPONSORED: In an effort to help cut through the noise, Dataminr, a real-time information discovery platform, provides a vital tool to help journalists sort through enormous volumes of information on social media. Through the use of proprietary algorithms that incorporate AI and machine learning technologies, Dataminr filters through millions of tweets and issues custom alerts set by geography, topic, or source, allowing a journalist to program their alert feed to only receive news tips that they and their readers would care about most.

PAID OUT: I shared public salary databases for Illinois, New York, Florida and the U.S. federal government in my last newsletter. You wrote in to share public salary databases for California (more), Connecticut (raw data), Georgia, Hawaii and Ontario, Canada. Thank you for helping to make the world (or at least the U.S. and the most populous part of Canada) more transparent.

SHORTCUT: Starting a new Google Doc is typically a multi-step process, which is super inconvenient when you’re trying to take quick notes. But now it’s as easy as typing “” into your browser’s URL bar (or “,” for you accountant types). I tested it with Chrome, FireFox and Safari and it worked in all three.

TOP TOOLS FOR 2018: From now until the end of the year, I’m sharing my top 10 tools for 2018 in this newsletter. These tools will only appear in the email edition of this newsletter. Sign up to get Try This! — Tools for Journalism (and my top 10 tools) in your inbox every Monday. If you’re unable or unwilling to sign up for some reason (maybe you burned your clicking fingers baking pies over the weekend), don’t worry. I’ll post the complete list to the website at the end of the year.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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