Small newsrooms have the most to gain from AI and automation

By Cecilia Campbell

United Robots

Malmö, Sweden


In just a couple of years, a major shift has happened in local media in regard to AI and the automation of newsroom processes. In February of last year, I wrote about how small newsrooms can benefit from this new tech. At that point, a significant majority of media leaders surveyed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism thought AI would mainly benefit large publishers.

In a recent news automation Webinar, Aimee Rinehart, who heads up the Local News AI Program at the Associated Press in the United States, pointed out that its 2022 report — based on interviews with a couple dozen local newsroom managers and a survey of 200 local media leaders — shows they are “confident that AI can take on repetitive tasks to free up time.”

“We’re forever prioritising and sometimes I feel all we ever do is choose not to cover things,” said Helena Tell, whose local newsroom leverages automated content to cover more stories.
“We’re forever prioritising and sometimes I feel all we ever do is choose not to cover things,” said Helena Tell, whose local newsroom leverages automated content to cover more stories.

The mindset of local publishers, at least in the United States, is now one of embracing the opportunities the tech offers. Indeed, Rinehart pointed out it is local and very small newsrooms that can benefit the most from AI and automation: “The tech could help them increase what they are able to cover and likely also the size of their audience.”

However, the report shows barriers to adoption clearly remain. One issue is staff skills: Many of the newsrooms surveyed rely on a single tech-savvy journalist — “a newsroom unicorn” — which comes with risk, should that person move on.

Smaller newsrooms are also less inclined to experiment and test new tech, as “experimenting means risk, and risk carries with it the possibility of failure, which could mean they go under,” Rinehart said. The media leaders interviewed also agreed on three requirements for adopting new technology: low cost, low learning curve, and low maintenance.

A lot of the issues above were considered when United Robots decided to adopt our current business model. Basically, we’re a tech company, but we don’t sell tech; we run it on behalf of our publisher partners and instead sell the automated content our robots generate. In other words, the tech skills, development, and maintenance are our responsibility, reducing the risk on the part of the publisher.

So, let’s circle back to the local newsroom and how it can benefit from automation. Nowhere is maximising the impact of journalists’ work more critical than in small newsrooms, where every hour counts in the hard work to cover all the local stories readers expect. With four reporters and one editor-in-chief, one of our smallest publisher partners is Bärgslagsbladet Arboga Tidning (BBLAT), located about an hour west of Stockholm, Sweden. It publishes automated texts on a number of local sports, traffic incidents, real estate sales, and new company registrations.

For BBLAT, publishing automated match reports, including comments from team coaches (interviewed by the robot via text message), has been particularly impactful. As a result, reporters’ time has been freed up to produce the really engaging journalism.

Said BBLAT editor-in-chief Helena Tell: “We have a KPI around the number of logged-in pageviews for an article. Generally, our sports articles struggle to reach the level expected. Sports is a divider; some love it, some hate it. If we look at this KPI in isolation, we’d not write a single text about sports, but of course we all know the mix is key. And sports lovers would be furious if they didn’t get sports through their local paper.

“Thanks to the automated match reports we can take a wider stance in our reporter-produced sports coverage, find angles that appeal to a wider group of readers. This means we hit our KPI and sports fans get the information they view as important, i.e. match reports at the final whistle blow.”

At United Robots, we see increasing numbers of local newsrooms making automation a priority to cover more local information, as well as free up reporters to produce the quality local journalism readers expect.

“For a small newsroom, automation is necessary,” Tell said. “We’re forever prioritising, and sometimes I feel all we ever do is choose not to cover things. 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.”

About Cecilia Campbell

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