The newspaper as a de facto repository for all local information may be history. But we’re now starting to see a movement — a circling back — to a place where local news sites are building up their positions as community hubs.
They are using robots to generate the volume of information needed to do this. One such publisher doing this is U.S. local media group McClatchy.
“Our focus is on serving our communities, and a key component of that service is providing streamlined access to content that is relevant to our readership,” said Cynthia DuBose’s, vice president of audience growth and content monetisation at McClatchy. She has been instrumental in driving the deployment of content automation across the group’s newsrooms. Her vision has been clear from the outset: Turn the McClatchy news brands back into community hubs, using robots to generate the information in demand by readers.
Discovering topic gaps
In the autumn of 2021, McClatchy went live with automated real estate content and high school game reports in seven of its markets. The decision to start testing content automation in some of the McClatchy newsrooms followed “brainstorming to look at our gaps,” DuBose said. “What content and topics were audiences looking for that we didn’t have?”
The team realised many of the topics driving new audiences were informational topics like real estate, high school sports, and restaurant reviews — content the newsrooms did not have the human power to cover. “We want our journalists to produce journalism, not track down information,” she said. “They should focus on what they are skilled to do.”
The upshot of the brainstorming was the launch of an AI project to “engage with audiences new and old,” DuBose said. In addition to the automated content on real estate from United Robots and high school sports from Lede AI, the group also deployed an AI tool for data visualisation and one for AI-powered social publishing.
By the end of February of this year, the project was live in 10 of McClatchy’s markets. To date, the result across the board has exceeded expectations in terms of weekly unique visits.
Reporters and robots working together
At McClatchy, reporters and robots are now working in tandem in many newsrooms, with robots producing information and journalists doing the journalism.
DuBose mentioned how this works with real estate, as an example: “We have real estate reporters in some of these markets. They are not covering the most expensive home sold last week; the bot does that. The reporters are writing the trend stories, things like “this neighbourhood is no longer affordable to the middle class.” That’s the journalism. But the top 10 most expensive list — that’s done by the robot.”
McClatchy is now taking the reporter-robot collaboration one step further. “We’re creating a new product by packaging the journalists’ stories together with the top house sales information,” DuBose said. “That will give us a really nice, layered newsletter for people who are interested in real estate.”
A community asset
We are now working with local publishers on both sides of the Atlantic that are interested in building out their coverage of local information — everything from sports to real estate, reports on local businesses, traffic incidents, unemployment, inflation, hurricane warnings, and more.
For these media companies, the robot-generated content is a community asset and service in demand by readers and advertisers alike. For readers, it means there is more information closer to home, such as neighbourhood house sales, local traffic reports, and new restaurant openings; this information can also work as a retention tool for publishers.
For advertisers, verticals around topics like real estate and local business provide an opportunity to reach audiences in a particular context — a context for which publishers can potentially charge a premium.
Publishers that combine reporter-produced quality local journalism with the many types of community information robots can generate relevance for local readers and businesses alike. And, in doing so, they strengthen their position as a real hub for the community.