We have a treat for you: a full transcript of the ‘Audio Revolution in Publishing’ session from AWS Publishing Innovation Day Online held on April 14, 2021.
The one-day online event had a central theme: digital transformation in publishing. Publishers from across the globe talked about every part of this ongoing process: successes, challenges, culture changes, and how AWS supported their journey.
Among these stories is one about audio, arguably the hottest media today, and one of its early adopters in publishing: McClatchy.
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As one of the biggest North American publishers with 30 newsrooms across the U.S. under its belt, McClatchy achieved success right from the start of their audio journey, when they partnered with Trinity Audio. The level of success only grew from that point on, creating a fascinating story about the impact that audio has today – both for audiences and publishers alike.
Angela Lunter (Senior Director, Business Strategy & Operations) and Hiram Enriquez (Product Strategy Lead) of McClatchy take us through the company’s route to becoming a major audio player in the publishing circles thanks to tech innovation, with Niall Duffy (EMEA Head of Technology Partners, AWS) spearheading the talk.
The conversation has been slightly condensed and edited for a better experience.
Niall Duffy: Today, we’re here to discuss a really remarkable success story on the use of audio in publishing, and it’s one where McClatchy has been able to use audio to really drive reach and engagement with its audience.
With me today are Angela Lunter and Hiram Enriquez. Angela is the Senior Director of Strategy Operations and Hiram is the Product Strategy Lead.
Angela, although you own some of the biggest titles in North America, many of which will be household names there and known, not everyone in Europe is going to be completely familiar with McClatchy. Can you tell us just a little bit of background about the company?
Angela Lunter: As you mentioned, we’re a North American news publisher, and we own and operate over 30 news brands in the US. Some well-known local titles include the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Charlotte Observer, and the Sacramento Bee.
The company was founded in California over 160 years ago. That’s where the base of the operations were but has since expanded across the U.S. We have pretty active pockets in the northwest part of the country, as well as the southeast part of the country.
Over the decades, we’ve really developed a diverse portfolio of properties and news brands across a variety of different sizes. Some of our newsrooms have fewer than 10 reporters.
But at the heart of it, for all of our properties of all sizes, we are rooted in local audiences, providing local journalism that is essential to the constituents in those communities. That ranges from ‘News you can use’, investigative journalism, as well as opinion and other pieces.
Local is at the heart of everything that we do.
Niall Duffy: so despite being a problem – I call it the traditional pen publishing business with this super long legacy – The reason you’re here is that you’ve developed some really strong digital products. Not just in social media and video, but also specifically with audio.
Can you give us a bit of background and maybe talk through the journey of developing some of those digital products?
Angela Lunter: So, I’d say that it’s really been the past four to five years that we’ve leaned into alternative methods of storytelling.
We were looking to go beyond print journalism, not only to create content in new formats but also to look for ways to augment our print journalism and make it more impactful. We have a story but what accompanies it is a piece of audio or a piece of video.
We’re really looking to increase engagement and user value, which is becoming increasingly important as we build our subscription business. We were always and also looking for ways to drive incremental revenue.
That experimentation started with video, and shortly thereafter with audio. Like many publishers in this space, we started by producing podcasts with a combination of both local podcasts, as well as serial-type narrative podcasts.
The local podcasts were something like one of our sports journalists that covers a particular team having a weekly show. They’d talk about the results of the game or talk to guests that are relevant to that particular team or sport in a way to engage local audiences.
But then, we also have some serial-type programs and podcasts that basically take a local story and turn it into a narrative series. That has been interesting because that’s what enabled us to really distribute an appeal to audiences outside of our geographies.
“We had seen the engagement in audio with smart speakers and podcasts. We hypothesized that there was a need for users to experience audio on our owned and operated properties.
So, we sought to find a solution that enabled us to do that pretty inexpensively and at scale. We partnered with Trinity Audio, and they were able to get us a high-quality and low-cost solution so that we can get those audicles in place.”Angela Lunter, Senior Director, Business Strategy & Operations at McClatchy
We’ve also been watching very closely the smart speaker space, understanding that users are developing new habits with these devices, particularly when it comes to news.
And so, we produce daily flash briefings that are distributed in the mornings in seven of our key markets. We use those not only to engage users, to help them to associate their daily news habit with our brands, but also to promote some of our other audio products, including our podcasts, and others.
Finally, our most recent innovation in audio is text-to-speech for our articles, what we call audicles.
Again, we had seen the engagement in audio with smart speakers and podcasts. We hypothesized that there was a need for users to experience audio on our owned and operated properties.
So, we sought to find a solution that enabled us to do that pretty inexpensively and at scale.
We partnered with Trinity Audio, and they were able to get us a high-quality and low-cost solution so that we can get those audicles in place.
This enabled us to quickly translate our written and text content into files that users could experience on the site.
We saw that they responded really well to it. We did a test and an experiment across a few properties first. What we found there was so positive that we launched it shortly thereafter across our whole enterprise.
Niall Duffy: I guess many of us would be kind of still stuck in the image of a print publisher as in a more analog way, kind of people running around, typewriters and stuff. What you’re really describing is the adoption of a very emerging and cutting edge technology.
Hiram, what were some of the implementations, learnings, and challenges associated with that?
Hiram Enriquez: It was a very interesting process. As Angela said, we had a period of testing, A/B testing, and trying different combinations.
But at the center of it was the wealth of content that we have across our publications. We have content that could be used daily in local markets and news stories that also made the national conversation in the US and abroad, as well.
We were looking for a way to have that content translated into audio because our audiences are now using audio as a way of consuming content. We know that and also, we see that as a space in which we can better serve our advertising partners, in the sense of finding new audiences and reaching them in a different way.
So, we went out in the market and looked at different options out there. We decided to work with Trinity because of the way they had customized the AI voice.
It was very important to us that the experience for the user was actually closer to what you would expect with a human-read material.
Also, we were looking for a way to effectively implement this with a low technical lift, if that is possible in this environment.
Basically, just by adding a script on the page, we’re now able to have an audio file for each of the articles that is produced and published in our network on any of the sites. That gives us an advantage not only for the text-to-speech feature but also for other opportunities across the network.
“We found out that the users that are seeing and interacting with this feature, actually become more engaged with our properties. They become more engaged with our publications, increasing the amount of stories they see per visit, the amount of visits they have per month, the amount of time they spend in the properties, and so on.”Hiram Enriquez, Product Strategy Lead, McClatchy
We did test several things. We first tested the actual level of adoption of this feature.
We saw that people accepted it and liked it, and that they were using it. We tried different things such as placing the ads in different positions, placing the player in different positions in the page. So, we saw what the best combinations were for those things.
Interestingly, we found out that the users that are seeing and interacting with this feature, actually become more engaged with our properties. They become more engaged with our publications, increasing the amount of stories they see per visit, the amount of visits they have per month, the amount of time they spend in the properties, and so on.
I think that’s a good lesson or a side effect, let’s say, of having users enjoy another way of consuming our content.
Niall Duffy: So you’re saying that with direct increase in engagement and presence, people are consuming more than they previously would have?
Hiram Enriquez: Yes.
If you look at the cohort of people that actually engaged with the text-to-speech feature, they tend to be more engaged after they start using it. Not only with that particular feature, but the site in general.
Niall Duffy: In terms of the integration with the newsroom. Again, we tend to think of print publishing as a creative form. You got people, journalists who are creating stories and publishing them. This is more of a story about automation and engagement with the end customer.
How did the newsrooms kind of respond or integrate with this technology?
Hiram Enriquez: The newsrooms were critical in this endeavor because they’re producing the content.
They were basically integrated with the process of getting this feature up to speed. And it is an AI, machine learning – you know, the machine keeps on learning.
The good thing is that we have a very good working relationship with Trinity Audio. They’re very receptive to our feedback.
For instance, we get feedback from the newsrooms about how to pronounce different things. So, we need to teach the AI acronyms, like when does it say the letters, when does it say it as a word, and so on.
We also have publications in California. As you know, the places in California have names that are written in Spanish but they’re not pronounced in Spanish or in English. It’s something else. Those are things that we had to teach the AI and the newsrooms were instrumental in this adoption.
Niall Duffy: I guess we can be guilty sometimes of viewing North America as a very homogenous place, but in reality, it’s very, very diverse. I’m curious about some of that localization, particularly the languages. It’s not just English and the reach is beyond the United States.
How big a factor was that in terms of multiple different language support?
Hiram Enriquez: It was really important.
As you mentioned, in our network, we have publications that are not only in English but also in Spanish. For instance, el Nuevo Herald, which is the sister publication of the Miami Herald.
That’s why there’s more listening by the Hispanic populations in the US, but also in Latin America, Spain, and around the world. It was very important for us that we could address those markets as well, something that we were able to do in coordination with the newsrooms and Trinity Audio.
Bear in mind that in a region like Latin America, you have a multiplicity of accents and different ways of saying things that are not standard. So we had to look for something that was very standardized, that would sort of fulfill the needs of many different regions across this vast market that is the Spanish language market.
“We knew that if we needed to translate all of our text articles into audio, we needed to find a solution that enabled us to do that quickly and at low cost. The fact that we were able to dial in the AI and machine learning with Trinity Audio was really key to us.”Angela Lunter, Senior Director, Business Strategy & Operations at McClatchy
Niall Duffy: When we talk about technology, and particularly AI/ML technology, we can go and get a bit caught up in it. You come from a commercial background, so the question is always the “Show me the money” one.
What have you learned about the use of this technology when it comes to efficiency and monetization?
Angela Lunter: We saw this as a combination of being able to bring us some cost savings, as well as tap into some additional revenue.
On the cost-savings front, it was really leaning on AI and machine learning to be able to translate the text to speech. As you can imagine, our podcasts are highly produced, with people, which is expensive. Our daily flash briefings were actually human-read as well, and that was a fairly expensive endeavor.
We knew that if we needed to translate all of our text articles into audio, we needed to find a solution that enabled us to do that quickly and at a low cost. The fact that we were able to dial in the AI and machine learning with Trinity Audio, just as Hiram just described, was really key to us.
We also wanted to make sure that the machine-read voice was “human”, that it sounded as close to human as possible. That got better and smarter over time, if you will.
It helped us on the cost savings front because we knew we didn’t have to use human resources to actually produce the content.
“In the meanwhile, we have Trinity Audio to fall back on, on their relationships with audio advertisers and the dollars that they’re able to bring to the table through either direct deals or programmatic demand that they’re plugged into.
It was an immediate revenue upside opportunity for us and a cost-saving one at the same time because we were able to tap into those ad dollars.”Angela Lunter, Senior Director, Business Strategy & Operations at McClatchy
On the revenue side, I think everybody, every publisher probably can see how much money is flowing into audio advertising right now. It’s a huge regrowing platform for advertisers and for advertising dollars.
We wanted to be able to not only tap into the dollars that were flowing through programmatic channels in audio but also enable our sales teams to sell into these audio experiences directly.
As you can imagine, the latter is not as easy. You know, we have sales teams that are very used to selling print and very used to selling traditional digital advertising units. So learning the audio piece has taken a little bit of time.
In the meanwhile, we have Trinity Audio to fall back on, on their relationships with audio advertisers and the dollars that they’re able to bring to the table through either direct deals or programmatic demand that they’re plugged into.
It was an immediate revenue upside opportunity for us and a cost-saving one at the same time because we were able to tap into those ad dollars.
I will say that another very positive development is that Trinity Audio has always been willing and at the ready to help us with additional advertising opportunities.
We recently had a deal and we’re continuing to explore the idea of branding the audio player that’s on our pages. We worked with a health brand in Miami to do that around Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They got branding in the player, they got an audio message within the player as well.
So again, we’re tapping into the traditional audio formats, but also finding ways to bring bigger packages to the table.
Niall Duffy: This sounds like a tremendous and actually complex result that you’ve got. You’re kind of reinventing advertising, which is the lifeblood of your organization; dealing with emerging new technology, and dealing with languages, in particular. You’ve made it sound so easy, which I’m assuming it wasn’t.
Can you talk us through a little bit of just how difficult it was? It sounds like it was the iterative approach that you took, which has been a key part of this success.
Angela Lunter: On the ease of implementation, I think that Hiram described a little bit about what that took. We’ve worked very, very closely with our newsrooms but also with our product and design teams to make sure that the player felt intentional, to make sure that it was in the best possible place to prompt usage.
We went through a similar process, implementing it on our pages like we would with video or other features. The fact that we saw the results of our A/B test, the fact that it was so positive made it easy for us to scale it across all of our properties, share the findings with our executive team to get their buy-in to expand it elsewhere.
So in terms of ease, I’d say it was one of the easier products for us to implement because the technical piece wasn’t very difficult, and the results almost spoke for themselves.
Niall Duffy: I’m intrigued by how you think your audience is going to change in response to these types of tools because you’ve really emphasized how they seem to have taken it on board.
Hiram Enriquez: We have seen the audience already changing.
I think that’s key to what we’re doing in terms of innovation: seeing where the audiences are going and how we can provide them with value propositions that actually fit their needs in the new environments.
We see that in the audio space, we see that in the news space, and so on.
Traditionally, in the media industry, I think we’ve been very protective of our own platforms, and a little bit of that mentality is changing. I think that’s important in terms of innovation.
That’s what we’re trying to do: follow the audience and provide a better value proposition for them, for our advertising partners, and for our subscribers as well.
Niall Duffy: We’re just out of time on that one. I’d like to thank both of you very, very much, Angela and Hiram, and thank you for a great story.
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