UK regional news publisher Newsquest has been experimenting with 'audio features' as a way to boost audience engagement and subscriptions this year.
Its parent company Gannett, in partnership with the Google News Initiative, has developed an in-house app called Bytecast. It allows reporters to record, edit and upload audio files straight to their internal CMS, thus helping the reader immerse themselves into the soundscape of the story.
At the start of the year, Newsquest rolled out the feature to a number of its titles. One of the first to give it a shot in the UK was Sofía Delgado, regional audience and content editor at Newsquest, who oversees the digital strategy for the titles in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire.
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, Delgado explained that she was inspired by an old 'comic journalism style' publication called Symbolia (which shut down in 2015) that allowed users to tap on images to hear sounds from a given scene.
"I fell in love with this idea of reading something and then being transported to that scene, which you cannot quite get with written work," she says.
Bytecast has a simple user interface that looks a lot like Voice Memos, the default audio recording app for iPhones. When out and about, four reporters on Delgado's team have been tasked to grab audio from the scene - after all, they are often doing interviews anyway and this just makes the material go further.
Local journalists have been playing around with the app to spruce up sports and court reporting. This has helped produce clips on football managers reacting badly to press conference questions and compilations of the judge 'put downs' after handing down sentences.
Bournemouth-based court reporter Jason Lewis does a subscriber-exclusive weekend round-up of court stories as well as an exclusive podcast. It uses headlines to sell these, for example: "AUDIO: Round-up of the latest Dorset court cases".
Up to 80 per cent of listeners are already engaged readers, meaning the remaining 20 per cent are new audiences coming in for something different.
Although audio content represents less than one per cent of total output, it has been responsible for converting around five per cent of new subscribers in the last six months. Delgado said that when compared like-for-like (audio versus non-audio for the same story), audio stories outperform other content both in terms of shares on social media and traffic to the website.
"Showing our audiences that we are willing to be cool with the times and give them the content that they want, in a way they want to consume it, is very important and is yielding these results of people giving us money."
Bytecast tracks metrics on how many times a user starts listening, length of engagement and listener retention. These metrics are very useful to explore any correlation between audio quality and the moment audiences drop off.
Newsquest has recently been on a hiring spree for more digital journalists to carry out similar projects in the future. However, Delgado warns against overloading reporters.
"As much as we tried to optimise and arrange workflows, the reality is that with small newsrooms when you have a newspaper to get out and a website [to manage], it’s difficult to push audio at the top of the agenda.
"Be clear about the capabilities of the app, the [expectations of] reporters, and the experience everyone has. That has taken some back and forth at times, luckily what this has allowed us to do is introduce audio into the newsroom in a way that is not too disruptive."
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