How News Outlets Can Benefit from Kindle 2’s Text-to-Speech Function

I’ve made a discovery about Amazon’s Kindle e-reader: It’s a pretty good “news radio.” That is, its text-to-speech function does a surprisingly decent job of reading news content aloud.

I currently subscribe to The Wall Street Journal on my Kindle, and I’ve gotten in the habit of letting it read me some interesting articles as I go through my morning routine. I like it. The automated text-to-speech reader is a bit flat for fiction, narrative and essays that require significant emotional or rhetorical inflection — but it’s great for news. I’ve starting considering it my “robotic NPR.”

(Ducking the reflexive outcry from all my friends at NPR…)

Of course, my point isn’t only about the Kindle. It’s about how any text-to-speech service or tool can interact with text-based news and information content — and why creators of text-based news content should start to take that into consideration.

Like e-reader display technology, text-to-speech technology has improved significantly in the last few years. It’s still far from perfect, but of all the versions I’ve heard, the Kindle’s is one of the clearest, and others are catching up. This is good for people who have a preference for audio news because now we can experience news produced for text in a format that works with our preferences.

Don’t get me wrong, I love news specifically produced for audio — either radio broadcast or audio/video news podcasts. I listen to a lot of it. (By the way, if you haven’t tried the Public Radio Tuner iPhone application, get it — it’s killer.)

But it’s pretty cool to be able to have stories from WSJ.com read aloud to me while I cook my veggie pesto omelet, or articles from the newly online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which I can quickly “Kindlfy” via the free Instapaper service, which I recently wrote about.

As text-to-speech technology continues to improve and proliferate, I’d suggest that text news publishers consider how well their online and Kindle content “reads” in the audible sense. One thing I don’t like about listening to WSJ stories via Kindle is that it reads aloud all the navigational context at the top of the story: word count, etc. This is just a minor and fast irritation, but it bugs me. There’s got to be a way around that.

So, as I recommended in an earlier piece I wrote about the Kindle 2, when your newsroom gets a Kindle (or when you get to try out someone else’s for a bit), try listening to some of your news stories.

You can subscribe to many newspapers and magazines via the Kindle store for a free, two-week trial, or buy an individual article or two. Play with the settings for speed, gender of voice, etc., and realize that you’re listening to a stepping stone technology that presages a potentially important channel for your news in the future.

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