Heard Any Good Stories Lately?

By: Joe Strupp

It was one of the most emotional and dramatic stories in the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News on Aug. 2 ? the fatal gas station robbery that left a 24-year-old clerk dead. But for some reason, it lacked that heart-tugging bite. But the problem wasn’t with the reporting, the editing, or the story flow.

It was that droning electronic voice.

Although the report had human loss of life, frightening reminders of crime, and clear descriptions, hearing it reported in a voice reminiscent of the robot from “Lost in Space” seemed to lessen some of its impact. Still, the Daily News and other Cox newspapers using the online Click-2-Listen feature that allows Webbies to hear stories read to them online, claim it has been a bona fide hit.

Just months after Cox installed the program (from Newsworthy Audio of Virginia) at all 17 of its daily papers, those running the sites say it is helping readers with visual limitations, as well as those who want to download the news and listen later on their MP3 players.

“It is just another option for people,” says Mike Goheen, online director for Cox Ohio, which includes the Daily News’ online home. “It is enabled for every local story on our site. I have heard from people who have been downloading them as podcasts.”

Hyde Post, vice president/interactive for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, utilizes the service on more than half of his online texts. “If it is a wire story, we almost always use it,” he says. Post tends not to use Click-2-Listen for breaking stories (“It takes a fair amount of time” to process, he says) and adds that is also not used for Op-Ed pieces, because “some of the opinion writers haven’t been all that comfortable with it. The nature of the inflections, the emphasis on occasion is in the wrong place.”

COXnet General Manager John Reetz agrees, saying, “not everyone likes an automated voice.” Cox decided to provide Click-2-Listen chainwide earlier this year after entering a revenue-sharing agreement with Newsworthy, which means it costs virtually nothing. He says some newspapers, such as in Dayton, place it on every local story, while others pick and choose.

Reetz says the system automatically feeds text stories into Newsworthy’s server, which sends back the automated voice audio: “Each site just decides which channels they want it on, and which stories.”

Marcus Heth, Newsworthy’s CEO and a former software executive, says the company launched more than two years ago and claims the revenue-sharing aspect is a way to make Click-2-Listen attractive to newspapers. He says Cox is the only chain providing the service, but counts several single papers among his clients, among them The Washington Times. “We tie ads to content,” he says. “It depends on the publication, but whoever sells the ads gets the majority of the revenue.”

Jay Scott, COXnet’s content director, describes his company’s involvement as a real research-and-development project: “We have had no negative feedback, but a lot of positive comment from people with eye problems.”

But what do writers think of their stories being read by something that sounds like an emotionless robot?

“I’m glad to have my ideas and words purveyed in any way it happens,” says Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of The Washington Times and a former Republican party strategist. “It raises an interesting question ? what is the natural voice of the Internet? The written word, or the spoken word?”

Columnist John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman doesn’t object, “as long as I don’t have to listen to it. I wouldn’t want to listen to that electronic voice. But if people want to hear it and don’t mind, that’s fine.”

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