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News automation dos and don’ts

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Use newsroom automation to get journalists to do ‘stronger reporting’ – but ‘don’t automate a bad process’, say editors and experts in using newsroom AI of writing.

Attendees of the Press Gazette and United Robots webinar “News Automation: Winning Robotic Journalism Strategies for 2023” on October 12 heard from leaders in the field that the key to automation success is knowing in advance where you need it most – and to recognize that AI can only get you 80% of the way with some stories.

But once automation kicks in, journalists, rather than losing their jobs, are freed up to do more interesting and informative work.

There were, however, differing opinions on how open editors should be about automation and some opposition to the term “robot journalism”.

“I don’t call it robotic journalism”

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford asked panelist Thomas Sundgren, chief commercial officer of United Robots, what we mean when we talk about AI, robots and automation.

Sundgren explained that the kind of AI popularized by science fiction — or more recently, the GPT-3 language program — isn’t necessarily useful to publishers.

“Most newsrooms and most vendors don’t want to apply this pure machine learning technology to automated newsroom content,” he said. “And the reason for that is, basically, machine learning is supposed to be constantly changing and learning, and changing the output based on the learning…

“Sometimes it could produce a radically different output format, as far as editorial texts go, because that’s what it’s supposed to do. And most readers and newsrooms actually want a predictable format.

Cynthia DuBose, vice president of audience growth and content monetization at US local media group McClatchy, echoed Sundgren’s point.

“I don’t call it robot journalism at all. I think when it comes to local news, I define AI for local news as information. It’s data our readers want to know — whether it’s the weather, high school sports, house prices. And it allows us to add a layer of information to what we offer to our community. »

McClatchy has used automation to manage parts of its real estate reporting, such as doing the tedious work of processing reams of property sales and pricing data.

DuBose said, “For us, we use the term ‘AI articles’. We don’t use robot journalism. Our journalists continue to create journalism. And that’s something that I think McClatchy was very clear about – we don’t think AI or robots can do what our reporters do.

What newsrooms can do with automation

Aimee Rinehart, who leads the local news AI initiative at Associated Press, said AP used a similar approach with earnings reports and their reporters “can now do more robust reporting and let the data to machinery”.

She said: “Since 2014, we have pioneered natural language generation with revenue reporting – taking data into a spreadsheet from quarterly revenue and creating articles based on that. And so every cell has an “if-then” – so if the price has gone up, that’s the language [you tell it to use]…

“And we went from 300 earnings reports per quarter to 3,000. And the reporters that we reported on that said they [had] felt like robots, actually, doing 300 revenue reports, and now they’re able to do analytics.

Rinehart told the webinar: “Nobody lost their job during this [implementation]. In fact, people were saying that their work had become better, more interesting. And they were able to write up analyzes on what those earnings reports meant collectively or by industry. »

PA Media editor Pete Clifton said his organization used automation to localize data reports.

When the Office for National Statistics releases a big data release, Clifton said automation allows the AP “to grow, to deliver 300 localized versions of a story like that.

“While we would have previously done a national view, we might have made a few evasions on a particular talking point in one region, but we would never have been able to provide this level of detail for so many local authorities or different cities or health authorities, etc.

How to get the most out of automation

DuBose explained that when McClatchy was looking to apply automation to their work, they “identified areas where we had public demand for basic information. We recognized that in many of our markets, almost all of them, there There is a great appetite for accurate and timely real estate information.

“Next, we looked for opportunities to produce content at scale… We looked for structured data available in all regions, which also made the implementation much more feasible. And in this case, it was real estate transactions.

Asked by Ponsford whether the implementation has resulted in increased revenue, DuBose said, “We are seeing an increase in audience reach.”

Another recurring theme was the importance of humans in making automation work.

AP’s Rinehart said, “When we talk with local newsrooms and talk about implementing solutions for things that don’t always have reliable structured data, we say AI can take you 80% of the way, and then that other 20% has to be human.

Despite this, she confirmed to Ponsford that AP is so confident in its models that its automated earnings release digests go straight to the wire without human verification.

Clifton pointed out that PA’s capable team of data journalists played a crucial role in the company’s implementation of automation. On partially automated PA articles, he said, “Often it’s signed by one of the data journalists who oversaw the end-to-end process, which included a lot of automation along the way, but they put in a lot of the grunt work too.

How open should you be about your use of automation?

This point about signatures formed one of the few differences of opinion among the panelists. While PA doesn’t typically advertise the involvement of automation in its articles, McClatchy is open about it.

Clifton said: “I don’t think there are many examples of publishers rushing to publish things [where] they proudly say “it’s generated completely automatically, and there was no intervention at all”… The formats could change, and that could really confuse the readership.

He said he’s had discussions with clients about automating sports content, but found that clients prefer the idea of ​​a human writing it. Nonetheless, he felt that “you have to hold hands with customers to let them know what they’re actually getting and to know it’s being done responsibly…but the bottom line is something they’ll feel good about.” comfortable”.

At McClatchy, DuBose explained, “We have signatures that show the stories were generated by a bot… And then we have a note that really explains how the information appeared, where it came from.

“And we have an email address that we use for comments. We really wanted to be transparent.

DuBose suspected that McClatchy’s openness helped his sites perform better on Google.

“We haven’t seen any penalties…Google wants [automated content] to be identified, what we do, and we feel that we do it very well – with the bot byline, with the footer that we have at the bottom, and also [making sure it’s] not repetitive. »

Stay on the good side of Google

Ponsford asked panelists how Google would embrace widespread automation, given the recent focus on boosting original content.

[Read more: ​​Google’s latest core algorithm change hits major news publishers harder than ‘helpful content’ update]

DuBose said: “Last week we had a hurricane – we were [covering] weather. This story was number one on one of our sites via Google. And it was just a prediction [article] – it was a report of ‘This state could be in the way’…

“So I think there are some things that when you’re setting up your template, you want to make sure that you’re looking at not all articles being exactly the same, you want to make sure that you’re transparent about who’s writing and how it was written.

Sundgren of United Robots added: “What Google is doing to penalize automated or bot-generated content is exactly what Cynthia says. These are short, repetitive snippets of text meant to be distributed in bulk only to attract SEO.

“And Google is of course pretty smart and pretty good at differentiating that kind of dirty bot content from automated editorial content like we do.”

Tips for Success: Identify Gaps in Your Reports

Asked about any other advice for newsrooms looking to implement automation, DuBose said, “Make sure you do it in a topic in an area that your audience is going to like. It doesn’t make sense to spend time automating for additional articles, if it’s not a topic that resonates with your communities.

Rinehart said technology isn’t necessarily always the answer.

“You don’t always need a technological solution. But I will say that as you think about what might fix a problem, you’ll probably find that you just have a bad process. So don’t automate a bad process.

And Sundgren said: “It’s about defining the gaps in the reports that you think you have and need to fill in order to be able to satisfy [your] audience, give them better information, cover new stuff.

Photo: Shutterstock

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