Tribune Company Built a Robot That Reads You The News

Shashi Seth Unveils First Product As Head of Tribune Digital Ventures

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Shashi Seth loves NPR. But he would like it a lot more if he could skip stories.

That was the kernel of the idea behind Newsbeat, a new mobile app the Tribune Company is releasing today that uses voice-over artists and a robot to read news stories while you're in your car or at the gym.

A former product guy at Yahoo, AOL and Google, Mr. Seth has a long history in Silicon Valley. But now he reports to Chicago as head of Tribune Digital Ventures, a newly-formed unit of Tribune charged with finding new revenue streams leveraging an asset the company has in excess: the news.

Tribune is owner of owner of local TV stations, Food Network and WGN America, as well as newspapers like Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Tribune is in the process of spinning the newspapers off into a separate company later this year, which will leave Tribune with TV, cable and the digital ventures group.

"We had been looking at our key asset, which is news and what we could do with that asset," Mr. Seth said. That's the gist of his first product, an app that reads news stories on mobile phones.

Launch the app, and it just starts reading. The system ingests 7,000 pieces of news a day from sources like Tribune and McClatchy Newspapers, Fox News, CNN, or anything else with an RSS feed (but notably, not The New York Times).

Mr. Seth has deals with 600 U.S. publications in place, about 75% of the market, he estimates. "We are working very hard to get to 100%, but not just publications but blogs, websites, any source of information that's relevant to people."

Tribune employs voice artists to read the top-100 or so stories, like, this week, Russia's annexation of Crimea or the hunt for Malaysia Flight 370. The rest are read by a Siri-like text-to-speech technology, which reads the top couple paragraphs of each story. The system has some intelligence built in to know that in a sports story, for example, a dash means "to," and to read "California" where the dateline says "Calif."

Users can program set preferences for topics, preferred sources or sports teams and swipe stories away that aren't cutting it. It also estimates the length of your commute to give a news playlist that's the right length.

Since he joined Tribune 10 months ago, Mr. Seth has hired a team of 50 people he described as "of the internet and mobile" in Palo Alto and Bangalore, and he added another 350 with the $170 million acquisition of Gracenote from Sony last month.

Gracenote provides the metadata and recommendation engine that powers many music services, including iTunes, so the company has plenty of expertise in recommending content. Tribune Media Services provides TV data to cable operators like Time Warner Cable and Echostar, so the deal adds to Tribune's entertainment data business.

The business model for Newsbeat is radio ads, and he sees it as a new business model for news. "The traditional mechanisms for getting it into the hands of users are print and broadcast," he said. "I think something like this creates a whole new industry, much like Pandora and Spotify have done for music."

The service runs with two audio ads every 10 minutes. Expect to see a lot of promotion of this app in on Tribune media properties over the next year.

Mr. Seth sees the service as radio replacement and like radio most heavily used during commutes or at the gym. That audience has migrated heavily to streaming services for music, so why not news? "You want the audience that is very captive and wants to listen to you and has the time," he said.

Mr. Seth sees Newsbeat as the beginning of a new era at Tribune, and the first of many things to come from the ventures group. We talked to him about why he joined Tribune in the first place, rather than another consumer tech company and here's what he said:

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