Crisis highlights need for automated journalism

By Cecilia Campbell

United Robots

Malmö, Sweden

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The global pandemic is putting additional pressure on an already challenged news publishing industry. The demand for journalism is growing, but a lot of the revenue underpinning it is disappearing. Reporters are increasingly spread too thin to produce all the stories editors need and readers expect.

The solution? Free up journalists’ time by having robots do the routine reporting.

Editor-in-chief Helena Tell at Bärgslagsbladet/Arboga Tidning relies on robot journalism so her newsroom can prioritise higher-quality stories written by journalists.
Editor-in-chief Helena Tell at Bärgslagsbladet/Arboga Tidning relies on robot journalism so her newsroom can prioritise higher-quality stories written by journalists.

Editor-in-chief Helena Tell at Bärgslagsbladet/Arboga Tidning in Sweden is on the front lines of local journalism. With a newsroom of five reporters, it’s a world of daily battles: prioritising how to use limited editorial resources while making sure all the important stories get done. “We’re forever prioritising, and sometimes I feel all we ever do is choose not to cover things,” Tell says.

The situation Tell describes has been a reality for many newsrooms, to a lesser or greater extent, for the past few years. With the advent of COVID-19, it’s suddenly thrown into stark relief.

According to media experts, not only will the current crisis hit this year’s bottom line, it’s likely to have a permanent impact on the news industry. Total revenue declines, previously forecasted at 5%-6% annually until 2021 are now expected to be 10%-15%, according to FTI Consulting. The digital transformation has, by necessity, been super-charged.

As publishers consider their options, many are having to make decisions, including staff reductions, they’d hoped not to make just yet — decisions that, in many cases, will be permanent.

The speeding up of the digital transformation as a result of the financial crisis extends across all industries. The same is true of automation. Looking back at periods of recession over the past decades, there’s been a leap in automation each time — in different ways for different industries. But basically, it’s about gaining efficiency by either replacing less-skilled staff with a fewer number of more-skilled staff or keeping higher-skilled staff and bringing in new tech alongside them.

Robots can work quickly and efficiently, filling in content holes journalists don't have time to fill.
Robots can work quickly and efficiently, filling in content holes journalists don't have time to fill.

For our industry, it’s of course the latter. The journalists in our newsrooms are our industry’s biggest asset. The value they bring is the quality journalism they produce. Reporters should be focused on in-depth, investigative, important stories. Robots, on the other hand, can do a lot of the basic reporting.

At Bärgslagsbladet/Arboga Tidning, a sport robot writes all the match reports for seven local sports, down to division 4 in some cases. In 2019, that equaled 1,074 published texts. Many of them included comments from team coaches, automatically gathered by the robot via text message interviews (a feature for which United Robots was nominated in this year’s INMA Global Media awards). With the robot covering all the matches, the five journalists can focus on writing the more engaging stories — the ones that achieve the editorial KPI of 350 logged-in pageviews, a level sports texts generally struggle to reach.

According to Tell, she’d need to hire at least two additional reporters to do the job the robot does today: For a small newsroom, automation is necessary. We know where to deploy our resources in order to make our readers happy. And if we can use technology and automation to perform tasks as well as we reporters would, there’s no doubt that’s what we should do.”

As news publishers plot the course through the accelerated transformation and the financial crisis, one key question will be how you optimise the use of newsroom resources. Publishers who get real benefits from automation use robots for the stories that can be automated, freeing up reporters to do the investigative, quality, human stories that underpin the journalistic brand. Robots and humans, both, are focused where they have the most impact.

Banner image courtesy of Tabble from Pixabay and Kevin Ku from Pexels.

About Cecilia Campbell

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