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Small newsrooms have the most to gain from AI and automation

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

In a recent news automation webinar, Aimee Rinehart, who heads up the Local News AI Program at AP in the US, pointed out that their 2022 report, based on interviews with a couple of dozen local newsroom managers and a survey of 200 local media leaders shows that they are "confident that AI can take on repetitive tasks to free up time." The mindset of local publishers, at least in the US, is now one of embracing the opportunities the tech offers. Indeed, Rinehart pointed out that it is local and very small newsrooms which 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, blockers to adoption clearly remain, the report shows. One issue is staff skills – many of the newsrooms surveyed rely on a single tech savvy journalist, "a newsroom unicorn", which carries with it 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," said Rinehart. 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 BBLAT (Bärgslagsbladet Arboga Tidning) about an hour west of Stockholm, Sweden. They publish 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.

Says Editor-in-chief Helena Tell: ”We have a KPI around the number of logged-in page views 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 in order be able to cover more local information as well as free up reporters to produce the quality local journalism readers expect. As Helena Tell at BBLAT puts it:

"For a small newsroom, automation is necessary. 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.”

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