The UK’s most prolific reporter churns out thousands of stories a month for hundreds of publications across the country — a superhuman effort, were it not for the fact the journalist is not fully human.
The articles are from automated news agency Radar — Reporters and Data and Robots — and often make the front page.
Global newsrooms have been experimenting with automated journalism for several years, with US organisations such as Bloomberg and the Associated Press among the earliest adopters, but the nascent technology has mainly been used for formulaic reports, for instance on corporate and sports results.
Radar, however, covers general interest stories. Its software generates reports based on the latest official statistics in fields such as health, crime, education and housing.
One of six human journalists working at Radar will write a story “template” with wording for each of the various possible scenarios — for example, a boom, modest rise or sharp fall in violent crime. Then, at the click of a mouse, versions of the story are created for each of the UK’s 391 local authority areas, pulling in the statistics specific to that region.
A joint venture between the wire service Press Association and data journalism start-up Urbs Media, Radar launched in 2017 with the help of a €700,000 Google grant.
The people behind it hope they can help offset a decline in local reporting, as dwindling advertising revenues lead to a cull of regional journalists. Its stories have appeared in publications from small local weeklies to big regional dailies such as The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post.
Joseph Hook, Radar’s data editor, said the journalism his team produces would have been useful in his previous role as a reporter at the Swindon Advertiser, as it would have given him more time for the more human side of reporting — talking to people.
“Because local newspapers are stretched, you do not have the opportunity to spend a day getting an understanding of the numbers and pulling them into the story,” he said. “Having them presented to you means you can, if you want, go out and seek local comment.”
Gary Rogers, Radar’s editor-in-chief, estimates that half of its stories that appear in print are added to by local reporters. However, that drops to just 20 per cent for stories republished by online news sites.
Radar’s biggest client is JPI Media, formerly Johnston Press, which pays Radar an average annual fee of £1,250 for each council on which its publications take stories. JPI, which was rescued by creditors late last year when its debt became insurmountable, manages about 160 brands, including The i and Scotsman titles, and gets roughly 700 stories a week from Radar.
“It is a way to generate content where we do not have the resources to do that, on areas that we are no longer able to cover,” said Tim Robinson, JPI content development director, who has worked with the news outlet since 1996.
Mr Robinson said the partnership answered “some of the challenges we are facing”, and that the thousands of computer-generated stories it publishes every month were a “significant and growing” part of its output. But he added: “We can’t say we used to have staff and now we are replacing them with robots, it is about supplementing — online content is infinite.”
Regional titles, once reliant on advertising from local businesses, have been struggling to compete with websites that post classified ads — as well as with Facebook and Google, which dominate targeted digital advertising. Between 2005 and 2018, the UK lost 245 local news outlets, according to the Press Gazette.
Google’s support for Radar follows the tech group’s pledge to support experimentation with journalism business models after criticism that its dominant position in the digital ad market has strangled the revenue flows of many media companies.
Sarah Kavanagh, senior campaigns and communications officer at the National Union of Journalists, said that while the NUJ generally saw the use of technology to support journalism as positive, “a potential risk is that companies will invest in this technology to cut back further on the few journalists they have”.
Nick Davies, a former reporter and author of books on the media including Flat Earth News, said the algorithmic innovation was “a blanket on a house on fire”.
“Local news outlets have been weakened by the corporations that own them, and reporters no longer have the resources to do their jobs covering courts and institutions,” he said. “The only way out of this is to find a new business model.”
Reach, which in February wrote down the value of its titles including the Daily and Sunday Mirror by £200m, trialled Radar for a few months but chose not to extend to a paid subscription.
David Ottewell, head of the company’s own data journalism unit based in Manchester, said the industry’s challenge was not “that we don’t have enough words being written. It is that we need better words and better stories.”
“There’s clearly a role for AI and automation in journalism, the interesting debate is where,” he added. “It is in aiding, but not replacing, the writing process.”
Radar now supplies daily copy to up to 350 local news titles in the UK. Mr Rogers said he was trying to bring a “very cost-effective way of generating high-value hard news content to an industry that is challenged”.
Mark Leslie, editor of the Fenland Citizen, a Norfolk newspaper owned by Iliffe Media, did not think his readers could tell which stories had been handwritten by a reporter or automatically generated based on a template. “The readers couldn’t care less who wrote it, frankly,” he said.
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