Small, local media leverage automated journalism to drive conversions, pageviews

By Cecilia Campbell

United Robots

Malmö, Sweden


It’s the final week of February 2021. This time last year, we were at INMA’s Media Subscription Summit in New York City (this years virtual version is going on right now), discussing newsroom automation with publishers from around the world. By early March, the world’s borders had pretty much closed, and at United Robots we were busy building the Corona Watch news desk tool for Swedish news publisher Aftonbladet.

In the year that’s passed, a couple of trends in news media have become more pronounced: The overall rate of the digital transformation in our industry and the increased use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the newsroom.

German local publisher ZVW set up a fully automated traffic update section on the site. A few months after launching, it generated up to 20% of all site visits.
German local publisher ZVW set up a fully automated traffic update section on the site. A few months after launching, it generated up to 20% of all site visits.

In January, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a survey of approximately 240 digital media leaders. Seventy-six of respondents said COVID-19 has sped up the digital transition. More than two-thirds (69%) of them see AI as the tech that will have the biggest impact on journalism over the next five years — enabling more personal user experiences as well as increased production efficiency. However, a majority of the surveyed media leaders (65%) think AI will be something that will mainly benefit large publishers; many smaller publishers worry about getting left behind.

AI in the newsroom is a wide topic of course, so let me focus on content automation specifically. The team at United Robots has spent the past five years discussing newsroom automation with numerous news publishers, in Scandinavia and beyond. What we found is that being able to effectively leverage robot journalism has very little to do with size. Many of our partner publishers are local media companies and many are fairly small, certainly from an international perspective.

Most of the media companies that work with us would not contemplate developing their own content generating robots like the BBC, Guardian, or The Washington Post have done. The long-term R&D cost and commitment would simply be too significant. For our partner publishers, the tech development is taken care of by United Robots, and what we deliver to them is the actual automated content: Our robot functions like another writer in the newsroom.

But our automated content-as-a-service business model is just an enabler. What makes the robot content work effectively for local publishers is the strategic way in which they use it. Many of our customers have found a fit at the intersection of journalism, audience, and business imperatives where robots deliver real value.

Here are a few examples:

  • Driving conversions: Last year, Norwegian regional title Bergens Tidende (BT) set up an entire home sales section on its Web site, entirely populated with automated articles with images and maps, segmented down to the neighborhood level for distribution. Six months after launch, BT had converted some 500 subscribers from the 7,000 articles published so far.
  • Pageviews and programmatic: German regional publisher ZVW uses traffic texts to support its advertising business. The texts are published to a Staumelder (traffic jam alerts) section on the Web site, where users are presented with information on the latest disruptions as well as an option to select just their town. ZVW is monetising from two to three ad placements on each article page, sold programmatically. The result? This pageview driving content plus ad calls are completely automatically generated.
  • Covering news white spots: Swedish local media group Gota Media publishes robot-written articles on sports, real estate sales, new company registrations, and traffic incidents to ameliorate its service to subscribers. The volume and geographical granularity of articles generated mean Gota Media is able to provide coverage of all local areas. “While we have a razor-sharp focus on local content, we still have white spots on the reporting map. With automated texts we ensure readers in these areas, too, receive regular updates about local events,” says head of production development, Peter Sigfridsson.

At the beginning of 2021, there are already plenty of local publishers who have robots do routine reporting on a daily basis, freeing up reporters’ time to produce the journalism that really matters to the local community.

About Cecilia Campbell

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