Sports robots interview coaches via text, help small newsrooms

By Cecilia Campbell

United Robots

Malmö, Sweden

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It sounds somewhat contradictory that robots now play an active role in creating journalism that involves hundreds — even thousands — of people that were rarely seen in local news stories before. But that is precisely what happens with United Robots’ Sports robots Q&A function.

Almost all Swedish local news groups publish automatically generated post-match reports of all games in all divisions in all sports, using United Robots’ NLG-based Sports robot. The new Q&A function adds a human element. After writing the match report, the robot sends relevant questions via text message to team coaches. The coaches’ quotes are automatically inserted into the articles published on the news publishers’ sites.

Team coaches receive and reply to questions automatically sent via SMS.
Team coaches receive and reply to questions automatically sent via SMS.

“There had been earlier attempts at using tech, like bespoke apps, to get teams involved in the stories,” said Henning Johannesson, who was head of sports at Mittmedia when Q&A was launched and is now my colleague at United Robots.

“I think the processes were too cumbersome, though, and nothing ever really took off. I confess was very skeptical it would work this time either.” But it seems the simplicity of using automatic text messages has won. Since launching in 2018 through January of this year, the Q&A function has included 602 coaches, providing a total of 6,272 published match comments. 536 teams have taken part, 28% of them women’s teams. The articles have been published across some 30 Swedish news sites.

Better coverage through automation

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, including posts on social media, that players and coaches appreciate the coverage they get in the local press through the Q&A quotes. There’s some more scientific proof, too. In a survey among the coaches, of the 180 who responded, 90.5% said that the function enabling them to comment via text message after matches is either “good” or “very good.”

News publishers are positive too, not least because Q&A enables more and better coverage in small local communities, which are sometimes underserved due to restricted newsroom resources. Bärgslagsbladet’s Editor-in-Chief Helena Tell said: “For a small local title like ours, with no dedicated sports reporters and limited staffing during evenings and weekends, the coaches comment function is a huge asset.

“We get match reports — immediately after the final whistle  which are comparable in quality to a story over phone by a reporter. The clubs and fans get the attention and the information they hunger for. The newsroom can instead spend our time chasing the ‘real’ stories, in other words content which we know a broader set of readers interested in sports want to read.”

Coach responses get automatically inserted into the published robot article. Here, Aftonbladet’s coverage of local football in Malmö.
Coach responses get automatically inserted into the published robot article. Here, Aftonbladet’s coverage of local football in Malmö.

The Sports robot Q&A function is not primarily about technology, it’s about people. 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 Q&A, that’s exactly what we’ve done. The automatic interviews are a win-win for local sports teams, fans and publishers, as they help create local sports journalism which is both inclusive and engaging.

Banner image by Michal Jarmoluk and Free-Photos from Pixabay.

About Cecilia Campbell

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