Siri will now answer your election questions

Apple’s built-in voice assistant won’t help you figure out who to vote for, but it will be able to update you on different races around the U.S. during election season, as well as deliver live results as votes are counted. The new feature, announced today, is part of Apple News’ 2020 election coverage, which also includes a series of curated news, resources and data from a variety of sources, with the goal of serving users on both sides of the political spectrum.

With the added Siri integration, you’ll be able to ask the assistant both informational queries, plus those requiring real-time information.

For example, you may ask Siri something like “When are the California primaries?,” which is a more straightforward question, or “Who’s winning the New Hampshire primaries?,” which requires updated information.

Siri will speak the answers to the question in addition to presenting the information visually, which makes the feature useful from an accessibility standpoint, too.

The live results are being delivered via the Associated Press, Apple says. The company is also leveraging the AP’s real-time results in its Apple News app in order to give county-by-county results and a national map tracking candidate wins by each state primary, among other things.

As it has done in previous years, Apple’s news editorial team has added special coverage of the U.S. election to its app, by working with news partners. This year, Apple’s coverage comes from news organizations inducing ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FiveThirtyEight, Fox News, NBC News, ProPublica, Reuters, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, TIME, USA Today and others.

In Apple News, readers are able to learn about candidates and their positions, track major election moments — like the debates, conventions and Super Tuesday — and stay on top of election news and analysis all the way through election night in the U.S. and the subsequent presidential inauguration. A partnership with ABC News announced in December will also bring video coverage, including real-time streams, into the app.

The Siri feature draws on Apple News for its answers and offers a link to “Full Coverage” in the Apple News app, if you want to learn more.

The feature appears to still be rolling out. In tests, Siri was able to answer some questions but defaulted to web results for others, as before. A staggered rollout is standard for Apple launches, however, as new features take time to reach all users.

Apple partners with ABC on 2020 presidential coverage in the Apple News app

Apple announced today it will collaborate with ABC News on coverage of the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election in its Apple News app. The efforts will kick off with the Democratic primary debate on February 7, 2020, in New Hampshire, and will feature ABC News videos, live streams, plus FiveThirtyEight polling data, infographics and analysis during key moments in the 2020 election.

The collaboration will extend through Super Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the general election debates, election night and the 2021 presidential inauguration, Apple says.

ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV will also partner for the February debate, the first to be held after primary voting begins.

This isn’t the first time Apple has added special coverage to its News app in the months leading up to a U.S. election. The company began to push its own election coverage after the 2016 election controversies that saw large tech companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, facing congressional inquiries and investigations regarding the Russian interference with elections that took place across their networks.

In the months since, Apple News rolled out its own guide to the U.S. midterms, followed by a real-time election results hub on Nov. 6, 2018. And most recently, it added a guide to the 2020 Democratic candidates and debates.

The need for news platforms users can trust is a key part of Apple’s agenda with its News app. Apple cites ABC’s winning of four Edward R. Murrow Awards this year, including for overall excellence in television. It also hosted the most-watched debate of the 2020 presidential cycle so far in September 2019, with over 14 million viewers across ABC and Univision, and 11 million online video views.

FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, is known for its statistical analysis, data visualization, and reporting on politics and the election, which includes things like trackers on the latest polling, candidate endorsements, and fundraising.

“Access to quality news and trusted information is always important, and never more so than in an election year,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News, in a statement about the collaboration. “We’re proud to partner with ABC News to present the millions of people who use Apple News each day with dynamic live coverage and responsible analysis during the major news moments of the 2020 election.”

“This election is one of the most consequential in modern history, and this unprecedented partnership with Apple News will deliver our world-class political journalism to more people than ever before,” noted James Goldston, president of ABC News. “It will enable millions more people to have a deeper understanding of the key issues, candidates, and events by providing straightforward information, insight, and context during the entire 2020 cycle — reaching our audience anywhere and anytime they want breaking and in-depth news,” he said.

Prior Apple News election coverage involved a range of media partners, such as Axios, Politico, The Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, CBS and others.

It’s notable that Apple has this time selected ABC as its coverage partner. Apple has historically had close ties with Disney, which owns ABC, thanks to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s close relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Disney’s acquisition of Jobs’ company, Pixar, in 2006. However, with Apple’s launch of Apple TV+, a Disney+ competitor, Iger resigned from Apple’s board of directors, saying the two companies’ paths were conflicting. But as tihs 2020 election news partnership demonstrates, the two companies can still work closely together, at times.

 

 

The Google News mobile app now supports bilingual users

Google News is going bilingual. The company announced this morning a new feature that will allow users to update their Google News settings to support two languages instead of one, in an effort to better serve the more than 60% of people worldwide who speak and read news across two or more languages.

The change means you won’t have to constantly toggle between two languages in order to keep up with news that’s being covered elsewhere. This is particularly important for those who have moved to a different country, but want to keep up with their news from back home, as well as in places where it’s common for people to speak multiple languages.

Google cites the ability to read both English and Hindi news at the same time as a key example.

The update won’t impact your other personalization preferences, Google notes — it will just pull in more stories that match the topics and interests you care about.

The changes follow a larger revamp of the Google News product and destination website that’s been underway for over a year. At Google’s developer conference in 2018, the company announced its plans to leverage AI technology to help select which stories were shown first and how the news selection would be customized to each user, while not trapping them in so-called “filter bubbles” where they don’t have access to fact checks or the other side’s opinion.

That AI-powered version of the Google News app rolled out last spring. 

More recently, Google revamped the Google News tab on the desktop to organize articles in a card-style layout, which was meant to improve readability and better highlight the publisher sources.

Today’s new bilingual feature, however, is aimed at the Google News mobile app user base.

Google says the feature is available now across 141 countries and 41 languages on the Google News app for both iOS and Android. (On the desktop, you still have to pick just one language, we found.)

The company notes that being able to read news in other languages can also help people widen their perspective on issues.

“There’s still lots more to do to help connect people with quality and trustworthy news on the issues they care about, but we hope today’s update will make it easier to connect with different cultures and perspectives from the comfort of your device,” Google says.

SmartNews’ head of product on how the news discovery app wants to free readers from filter bubbles

Since launching in the United States five years ago, SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn status, has quietly built a reputation for presenting reliable information from a wide range of publishers. The company straddles two very different markets: the U.S. and its home country of Japan, where it is one of the leading news apps.

SmartNews wants readers to see it as a way to break out of their filter bubbles, says Jeannie Yang, its senior vice president of product, especially as the American presidential election heats up. For example, it recently launched a feature, called “News From All Sides,” that lets people see how media outlets from across the political spectrum are covering a specific topic.

The app is driven by machine-learning algorithms, but it also has an editorial team led by Rich Jaroslovsky, the first managing editor of WSJ.com and founder of the Online News Association. One of SmartNews’ goal is to surface news that its users might not seek out on their own, but it must balance that with audience retention in a market that is crowded with many ways to consume content online, including competing news aggregation apps, Facebook and Google Search.

In a wide-ranging interview with Extra Crunch, Yang talked about SmartNews’ place in the media ecosystem, creating recommendation algorithms that don’t reinforce biases, the difference between its Japanese and American users and the challenges of presenting political news in a highly polarized environment.

Catherine Shu: One of the reasons why SmartNews is interesting is because there are a lot of news aggregation apps in America, but there hasn’t been one huge breakout app like SmartNews is in Japan or Toutiao in China. But at the same time, there are obviously a lot of issues in the publishing and news industry in the United States that a good dominant news app might be able to help, ranging from monetization to fake news.

Jeannie Yang: I think that’s definitely a challenge for everybody in the U.S. With SmartNews, we really want to see how we can help create a healthier media ecosystem and actually have publishers thrive as well. SmartNews has such respect for the publishers and the industry and we want to be good partners, but also really understand the challenges of the business model, as well as the challenges for users and thinking of how we can create a healthier ecosystem.

Mozilla readies launch of news subscription service

Way back in February, Mozilla announced an upcoming collaboration with Scroll aimed at finding a way to help fund news outlets. The organization appears ready to finally launch to the service, sending users a survey, along with invites to an upcoming beta launch of what it calls “Firefox Ad-free Internet.”

The service is one of countless third-party platforms aimed at helping ailing publications find a way to better monetize in an an era of defunding, when journalistic voices are more important than ever. The Apple News offering is probably the most notable in the category, but Mozilla’s offering provides an interesting alternative to a standalone app.

The Firefox version essentially provides a way to bring users ad-free access to their favorite publications by paying an upfront fee of $5 a month. Per Mozilla:

The service enables web users to pay for an ad-free experience on their favorite sites, across their devices. By enabling more direct funding of publishers, Scroll’s model may offer a compelling alternative in the ecosystem. We will be collaborating with Scroll to better understand consumer attitudes and interest towards an ad-free experience on the web as part of an alternative funding model.

BuzzFeed, Gizmodo Media, Slate, The Atlantic and USA Today all seem to be on board with the offering ahead of launch.

HBO cancels daily news show ‘Vice News Tonight’

Just ahead of the 2016 presidential election, HBO announced its plans to carry a nightly news show courtesy of Vice News, called “Vice News Tonight.” That show is now being canceled, which puts an end to HBO’s seven-year-long relationship with the new media brand Vice Media, according to a report from The Hollywood Reporter out on Monday.

HBO and Vice had expanded their relationship over the years, with a 2013 deal for a weekly news magazine, “Vice;” plus multiple documentary specials and, later, the launch of the nightly news program.

The goal with “Vice News Tonight” was to reach a younger audience who had grown “increasingly skeptical of daily broadcast news,” Vice had explained in its announcement at the time of launch.

The media company argued that the nightly news format hadn’t changed in roughly 60 years, but the way younger viewers consumed information has. They no longer watch nightly news out of obligation, but because the show has earned their time and attention, the company said.

The program grew to reach an audience of over 500,000 viewers per episode and won five Emmys, but still faced a ton of competition in the broader news market.

The show also meant to appeal to younger viewers who have cut ties with traditional pay TV. But today, these viewers have a number of ways to stream the news — including through live TV internet services like YouTube TV, Sling TV, or Hulu with Live TV, for example, as well as via the streaming platforms themselves, like within Roku’s The Roku Channel or dedicated apps for media players like Apple TV. They can also now get the news through other dedicated news streaming services, like CBSN, CBS All Access, NBC News Now, Cheddar, or even on social networks like Snapchat.

Today, news streamer NewsON announced it was coming to Amazon Fire TV, as another example.

In addition, THR points out that “Vice News Tonight” was more of a passion project of former HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who left earlier this year following AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia.

Along with the cancellation of “Vice News Tonight,” Vice Media news chief Josh Tryrangiel will depart at the end of the month, a report from The Wrap notes. Meanwhile, former New York Post CEO and publisher Jesse Angelo will come on board as president of global news and entertainment.

“Jesse is a news pioneer and has built an incredible career by successfully expanding the world of publishing into wider forms of distribution through a multitude of platforms, including digital, social, audio and television,” Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc, in a statement. “With him joining our executive team, Vice’s strategic growth plan for news will begin and complement wider partnership opportunities already underway. We’ve had a great run with our friends at HBO and now we’re excited to launch our news products on new platforms, solidifying our place as one of the most trusted brands out there, drawing the youngest audience of anyone in hard news.”

The cancellation follows layoffs of 10% of Vice staff in February and the hiring of Katie Drummond, previously deputy editor at Medium, as SVP of Vice Digital in March.

Though “Vice News Tonight” may be over, it’s not the end of Vice’s streaming platform presence. The company is reportedly working on a new show for Hulu, a report a few months ago said. That deal hasn’t yet been announced. And Vice is shopping a daily news show to other networks and platforms, THR says.

“Vice News Tonight” will end in September when the contract is up.

Sift’s ‘news therapy’ app aims to promote understanding, not anxiety

Is reading the news feeling a little stressful today? Can’t imagine why. Don’t worry: you’re not alone. A Pew Research study found that seven of 10 Americans today suffer from “news fatigue” — meaning they feel worn out and like they can’t keep up. Meanwhile, an APA survey found that 56 percent of Americans want to stay informed, but it stresses them out. A new app called Sift, launching today, wants to help. Instead of trying to overwhelm news consumers with breaking news and incremental updates, it aims to thoughtfully approach tough topics in order to encourage a deeper understanding of the issues.

The app will tackle the big issues du jour — like immigration, healthcare and climate change, for example — which are released in a series on a subscription basis. For each topic, Sift will examine the backstory and history of the issue. And each section will include interactive features — like polls, sliders and other data visualizations — that promote critical thinking skills and keep users engaged while they learn.

The app also avoids inflammatory language in presenting the facts, allowing users time to reflect rather than react. And all the sources are linked so users can dig into the supporting material.

According to Sift co-founder Gabe Campodonico, the goal was to come up with a concept for an app that would allow people to stay informed while reducing anxiety and stress.

“We built Sift to be an active learning experience that engages more of your brain — a tool for people to interact with, trust, and learn from. And one that doesn’t have to live within a distracted ecosystem of noisy newsfeeds and headlines competing for attention,” he explained.

The original concept began over two years ago, and has gone through several iterations.

The team earlier tested a reference product — but it ended up feeling too much like Wikipedia. They also tried a digital news magazine, but didn’t feel it offered anything new. And they tested a gamified education product, but felt it lacked substance.

Eventually they landed on the idea for Sift, which they call an “experiment in news therapy.”

In October 2018, Sift launched its first topic: the U.S. immigration policy and its impact on the economy and cultural identity. The company tested the topic with a group of users over a couple of months. At the end, 33 percent said they felt less overwhelmed, and 30 percent felt less anxious. Twenty-two percent said they felt more informed.

These numbers, of course, could be better — but they’re potentially an improvement over how it feels today to get the news from other media sources. (Not that they quantify how their coverage impacts readers’ emotions.)

Today, Sift is launching its first, full series for the price of $19.99 for a six-month subscription. The business model was chosen so the app won’t have to include ads or other distractions, nor will it use data targeting. Each week, the app will release a new topic, beginning with immigration, then guns, healthcare, education, climate change and media literacy.

Part one of each topic will look to the past to set the foundation, and part two will look at potential solutions and ways to move forward.

The app is produced by former Evernote CEO Phil Libin’s AI-focused startup studio All Turtles, but it doesn’t use AI as it had originally planned. In fact, the team found that AI was part of the problem. As the Sift website explains, its user research showed that “users value human curation, not based on algorithms that clutter news consumption.”

It’s interesting that Sift is positioning itself almost as a self-care app, but for news consumption. The idea that we should take time for ourselves, reduce our stress, meditate and prioritize our mental health and wellness is a more modern concept — one attributed to the millennial and Gen Z demographic, who have grown up in the always-on digital age. These concepts have led to a booming self-care market, where the top apps are raking in multi-millions annually. 

News organizations, by comparison, often struggle. Over the course of 2018, media businesses saw numerous layoffs, hiring freezes and shutdowns. But subscription-based publications can be a bright spot — as with The NYT hitting a 13-year high, or Apple rounding up all-you-can-eat news into a subscription add-on for Apple News.

Sift aims to appeal to both markets: those who want quality news by subscription, and those focused on self-care.

Whether either of these demographics at all overlap with the crowd of news consumers who actually need more education and time to reflect, however, remains to be seen.

Sift was co-founded by Chris Ploeg, and includes engineer Steve White and Kelly Chen on editorial. It also works with contributors Nithin Coca, Laura Dorwart, Hilary Fung, MJ Gimenez, Tekendra Parmar, Casey O’Brien, Lewis Wallace and Rowan Walrath.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Apple to close Texture on May 28, following launch of Apple News+

A year ago, Apple acquired the digital newsstand app Texture to form the basis of its new subscription-based service, Apple News+, which launched on Monday. As some have expected, the standalone Texture app will soon shut down as a result. According to emails sent to current Texture subscribers pointing to a FAQ on the company’s website, Texture’s last day of service will be May 28, 2019. Existing customers will be offered a one-month free trial to Apple News+ to make the jump.

A closure like this was bound to come. It doesn’t make sense for Apple to continue to operate both Texture and Apple News.

But not everyone is thrilled about this change, of course.

Specifically, Android users and other subscribers without any Apple devices will now no longer have a way to access Texture, they’ve realized. That means they’ll lose access to the service entirely when it closes down in May (unless they buy a Mac or iOS device.)

These customers were early adopters of subscription-based news reading. Many have had their Texture accounts for years. And it’s clear that most were holding out hope that Apple would launch a web or Android version of Apple News, or at least continue to operate Texture until such a thing was ready.

It wouldn’t have been entirely unprecedented for Apple to go this route.

Apple today runs an Apple Music Android app, for example, and offers an Android app for its Beats Pill speakers. It also provides desktop software to non-Mac users with iTunes for Windows, for example. And with the launch of Apple TV+, the company is seemingly embracing non-Apple platforms by rolling out an Apple TV app to Vizio, Samsung and LG smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku.

It’s also bit surprising that Texture’s existing customers aren’t being offered a better incentive to switch to Apple News+, as a way to reward their loyalty or to make up for the frustrations around having to switch apps – especially since their favorites and collections will not transition to the Apple News app. Instead, the Texture email says they’ll be offered a “one month free trial” to test out the service. That’s the same deal all new Apple News+ subscribers get.

After the first month, the subscription will auto-renew at $9.99 per month.

Apple News+, however, does deliver more value than Texture, in terms of content selection.

Instead of only offering access to hundreds of magazines for one low subscription price, Apple News+ subscribers can also read articles from a handful of newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Toronto Star, as well as online publications like theSkimm, The Highlight by Vox, New York Magazine’s sites Vulture, The Cut and Grub Street. TechCrunch’s own subscription product, Extra Crunch, is also participating in Apple News+.

It’s also available for the Mac for the first time.

That doesn’t help non-Apple customers, though.

Those losing access to Texture as a result of Apple’s decision to make Apple News+ an Apple device-only service do at least have something of an alternative with Scribd. Its subscription service offers unlimited access to audiobooks, ebooks and magazines for $8.99/month, or can be bundled with The NYT for $12.99/month. However, it doesn’t have the same range of magazines as on Texture, so switchers may lose access to several of their favorite titles.

NBC’s free news-streaming service, NBC News Now, will launch in May

NBC will launch a free, streaming news service, called NBC News Now, in early May, which will include eight hours of daily programming and live hourly updates. The service, which was announced by NBC News president Noah Oppenheim at SXSW this weekend, will rival existing streaming news efforts from CBS and ABC, which today operate CBSN and ABC News Live, respectively.

The NBC News Now streaming network will include original reporting as well as content sourced from other NBC News properties, Oppenheim said.

“We will be doing original work that will be specific for the streaming service, we will be drawing from the reporting that takes place across all the other NBC News properties,” he said, according to a report from Broadcasting & Cable. “We will actually be reaching into other corners of NBCUniversal, E! News, sports, you name it, for some of that content.”

He also said that when breaking news occurs, the streaming network will switch to live programming. The service will be free and ad-supported, and will be available across streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku.

The company was already known to be working on a news-streaming service. According to reports from last year, the company had teased its plans as a “new kind of news channel for a rising generation of news junkies.”

The move comes at a time when cord cutting is accelerating, leaving traditional news and media companies trying different paths to reach consumers – typically by bringing their news online, instead of only through TV airways and pay TV subscriptions.

NBC News has already experimented with different news formats — as with its Snapchat news show, “Stay Tuned,” which hit 1,000 episodes streamed just last week and averages 30 million views per month — over 70 percent with those under the age of 25.

Other news networks are finding different ways to stream.

CBS has heavily invested in CBSN, its 24/7 news channel first launched back in 2014. In more recent months, the company added CBSN to its streaming app, CBS All Access, and debuted a new portfolio of services under the CBSN brand focused on local news.  ABC News Live, meanwhile, became the first live news service Roku added to its free streaming hub, The Roku Channel.

theSkimm is launching a daily news podcast offering contextualized, nonpartisan coverage

News media company theSkimm is delving further into podcasting, with the launch of its first daily news podcast called Skimm This, set to launch on March 4. Similar to how theSkimm’s morning newsletter helps people keep up with the latest goings-on in the world, the new podcast also aims to help readers quickly understand the news of the day.

However, Skimm This will be different from other news podcasts currently on the market, the company says.

For starters, it will be released in the evenings – Monday through Friday at 5 PM – in order to reach people hitting the gym after work, commuters on their way home, or those who like to listen to podcasts during dinner prep, among others.

It will also not be a round-up of the day’s headlines, like other news podcasts.

Instead, Skimm This will focus on around four stories in total over the course of about 10 minutes. The top story will always be a national or international subject, and the podcast’s goal will be to provide more context and clarity around this story to help listeners understand why it’s important.

In addition, the company positions itself as a nonpartisan news source that only delivers facts, not opinions. Over half its audience said that’s what they wanted from a podcast, along with making the news relatable and easier to understand, the company notes.

Plus, theSkimm’s own data indicated that one-quarter (24%) of its female millennial users use podcasts to listen to news, and among those who do, 60 percent listen every day.

This isn’t the first podcast to launch from theSkimm. In February 2018, it launched Skimm’d from the Couch, a weekly podcast series where The Skimm’s co-founders and co-CEOs Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg interview female leaders – like Arianna Huffington, Taraji P. Henson, Whitney Wolfe, Katrina Lake, Reshma Saujani, Martha Stewart and Hoda Kotb – about their path to success.

The company also previously invested other media programming, including Skimm’d with… and Get Off the Couch for Facebook, and digital series Sip n’ Skimm.

But with Skimm This, the company is making a play to become more of a part of users’ daily routines – one which begins in the morning with the daily email newsletter that now reaches 7 million+ readers, continues throughout the day through theSkimm app calendar integration (which reminds you of important events), and now concludes in the evening with Skimm This.

theSkimm says it’s working with podcast and media company Cadence13 on Skimm This, and will distribute it to Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Google’s Android app, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spotify, iHeart and Radio.com.

There will also be a “flash briefing” version of Skimm This available at launch, where it will join the existing Daily Skimm briefing available on Alexa and Google Home.

The podcasting expansion comes at time when theSkimm’s growth for its newsletter business appears to have leveled off. Last May, when the company reported its $12 million Series C funding round with big names like Shonda Rhimes and Tyra Banks attached, it said its daily newsletter reached around 7 million subscribers. That’s roughly the same figure it’s reporting today.

The power of those readers is notable, though.

Since announcing the launch of Skimm This in today’s morning newsletter, the new podcast’s trailer shot to No. 1 on iTunes’ charts, in the News & Politics section (according to Podbay.fm data.)

Below is the trailer for Skimm This: