The Netherlands is a football (soccer) playing country: One million of the 17 million inhabitants belong to a club. Early on during the pandemic, regional news publisher NDC saw how the local sports communities were impacted and spotted an opportunity for the first post-COVID season.
The media company will do something no one else in the country has attempted: Covering every single local match for the whole season. That’s 60,000 football games — a commitment far beyond the capacity of the newsroom. “For a regional publisher like us, being able to cover all matches of all divisions is engagement gold,” said Ard Boer, NDC sport product manager.
And how do they plan to do it? By using robots and crowdsourcing. Robots will write the match reports, while photos and comments from coaches will be collected through a crowdsourcing platform.
The crowdsourcing platform is developed by NDC with support from United Robots, which already operates a similar service in Sweden, whereby team coaches are prompted to comment via text message after each match. In NDC’s case, the platform will allow coaches to comment as well as provide data about goal scorers. Both coaches and others around the pitch will be able to upload match photographs.
The reader promise of covering all local football in the regions of Friesland, Groningen, and Drenthe (1.5 million inhabitants) is all about reader engagement. NDC will offer unique journalism giving local communities — teams, players, coaches, and fans — a stake in the sports reporting.
“Thanks to automated journalism, we’re able to write about every single local football match — coverage that’s not provided by anyone else,” said Boer. “That, combined with the crowdsourcing element, will drive inclusivity and engagement in the local sports communities, and by extension create value in our news brand.”
The engagement generated will not just strengthen NDC’s three local journalism news brands. It will also underpin the publisher’s reader revenue business. While coverage of the local matches will be free to read, the automated content will be combined with premium sports journalism to drive people down the funnel.
Connecting people to publishers with robots
NDC is the most recent in a growing group of news publishers who automate local sports reporting to be able to cover all matches, all the time. It may sound somewhat contradictory that robots now play an active role in creating journalism that involves hundreds — even thousands — of people who were rarely seen in local news stories before.
But the fact is, they do just that. There is plenty of evidence from local publishers of how this works. Helena Tell at Bonnier News Local title Bärgslagsbladet in Sweden said automated match reporting means clubs and fans get the attention and information they hunger for, without impacting journalists’ time in her newsroom. At EverySport Media Group, also in Sweden, the staff sees local sports articles often go viral in small clusters, which means the publisher reaches big audiences at a hyper-local level.
A commitment to sports coverage is about connecting with local communities and being a news brand that’s valued by the people it serves. To quote Nick Diakopoulos, author of Automating the News: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Media: “Human values are at the heart of algorithms and AI and journalists need to think about how to design journalistic values into technology.”
With their upcoming coverage of all local football, that exactly what NDC has done. The automatic reporting and commenting are a win-win for sports teams, fans, and publishers as they help create local sports journalism that is both inclusive and engaging.