Speed, 24/7 coverage, pageviews justify value of Advance Local’s automated weather warnings

By Cecilia Campbell

United Robots

Malmö, Sweden

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Because automated editorial content is created from verified, structured data, it can safely be automatically published. From reliable data comes reliable text.

This reliability lies behind the value gained in Advance Local’s newsrooms, which publishes automated weather warnings.

During a seminar at INMA’s Media Subscription Summit in New York, Lamar Graham, Advance Local’s vice president of content strategy, and Matt Dowling, director of breaking and local news at NJ Advance Media, explained how the newsrooms work with, and benefit from, the automated content.

The automated weather warning content packages include state maps, with the affected county/counties highlighted in colour.
The automated weather warning content packages include state maps, with the affected county/counties highlighted in colour.

Advance Local’s venture into the use of automated content began in 2022, and it had nothing to do with extreme weather.

The media group has 10 local markets, one of which is Massachusetts. For a long time there, the newspaper The Republican in Springfield published a listing of all the homes sold in Hampton County in print, collated manually from a spreadsheet.

When it started publishing the same content online, the company realised it was converting readers into subscribers, “and that’s when a light bulb went off,” Graham said. If it could replicate this type of content across many more markets, it would potentially amplify the effect.

However, having reporters manually put together lists to achieve a few hundred pageviews was not viable.

“But what if we could somehow automate this and hoover up a bunch of this data around the country and scale it — that might be worth something,” Graham said. “This was our hypothesis.”

Researching options, Advance Local came across United Robots and discovered we did the data hoovering and had automated real estate content production for the United States (albeit from Malmö, Sweden). Advance Local started testing the automated real estate content at Masslive.com in 2022, and rolled it out to all other markets bar one in 2023.

During the summer of 2023 United Robots developed a new content service for the United States: automated weather warnings, based on data from the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS data covers more than 100 distinct weather events, and the robot scans the data literally every minute, so the automated alerts are always up-to-date.

Graham asked the local editors whether they were interested. In October, New Jersey and Alabama became the test grounds. By January, the content was pushed out automatically, and in mid-February six additional markets went live with the extreme weather updates.

So, how are the automated weather warnings helping Advance Local’s newsrooms? The content is very new, but based on the experiences at NJ.com, there are at least three distinct wins.

1. Speed

The weather data is checked every five minutes, and texts are generated literally instantaneously.

“We actually see the Slack alerts from United Robots about a new text having been published pop up faster than the updates from NWS in Twitter,” Dowling said. “And the content is already done, which means the reporter dedicated to weather can immediately link to that. So, we get the base of a story first, and then work off of that and cut down on the time to letting people know something’s going on.”

All weather alerts are auto-published to the weather section at NJ.com. There are four different classes of weather alerts. At the moment, work is going on to automatically publish anything classed as severe or extreme to the home page as well (this is currently done manually).

2. 24/7 coverage

A key advantage of the automated weather updates specifically, is that they constitute around-the-clock coverage of critical community events, whether or not there are reporters in the newsroom.

Dowling explained the significance: “We’re unstaffed six hours on weekdays and about seven hours on weekends, and on weekends we don’t always have a weather expert working. So, this really helps complement the times of days where we don’t have the people with the expertise to handle the larger stories on weather reporting in particular.

“In New Jersey, specifically, we get these snow squalls from time-to-time ripping across the state. They are not frequent events, but they are very dangerous if you’re driving. In these instances, we have a 15-minute window to let people know that there’s a public safety issue in front of them, and five minutes really matter,” Dowling said.

3. Pageviews

Content views is the main KPI for the content automation project at Advance Local. While automated real estate articles are fairly predictable in terms of volume per month, weather warnings, of course, are not.

On the other hand, if there are dramatic events, this content can drive a lot of views. During the two last weeks of February, when eight of Advance Local’s markets had all gone live with automated weather warnings, the company published 580 weather alerts (1,100 if you include updates on existing events). The content generated about half a million pageviews in the two weeks.

It will take a full year of weather events before Advance Local will be able to fully evaluate the effect of the automated weather warnings. But Dowling is clear the automated content in general is having a positive impact in the newsroom:

“This is stuff that adds value, it helps support the Web site, it helps support the mission, and it frees up the time for our reporters to do the more meaningful work. And that has made a big difference for us.”

About Cecilia Campbell

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