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September 8, 2021updated 02 Mar 2023 9:16am

How Swedish news publishers learned to stop worrying and love robot journalism

By Press Gazette

Partner Content*: Robot journalism is increasingly supplementing newsrooms, with automated content benefiting readers, existing editorial teams and the bottom line. Henning Johannesson and Cecilia Campbell of United Robots discuss why publishers interested in the possibilities of automation should look towards Scandinavia for examples of best practice.

It was not so long ago that AI and automation were popularly viewed through a prism of sci-fi dystopia: “The robot workforce is coming for your job!”

However, as adoption becomes increasingly common across various functions and sectors, attitudes are changing.

A 2020 Deloitte survey found that business leaders valued AI’s potential to enhance products and services and cited automation’s ability “to free up workers to be more creative”.

With many journalists working in a climate of shrinking headcounts and declining budgets and tasked with the challenge of how to “produce more with less” – a new robot colleague’s arrival may be met with suspicion.

United Robots has extensive experience meeting and assuaging such attitudes.

The Swedish tech company offers a unique content-as-a-service platform, utilising large data sets to create automated articles for publication: AI defines angle, a natural language generation tool generates text.

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From sports to weather, and real estate to traffic news, the platform has generated more than four million articles for its publisher partners since 2015.

Promoted white paper: How newsrooms can leverage automation

Read United Robots’  12-page report on newsroom automation: It explains what it is and how it can make journalism better.

Journalists may well ask: “Where do we fit into all this?”  Through having your bot tackle routine, time-consuming stories (albeit on a hitherto unimaginable scale), United Robots aims to free up existing editorial teams to add the value to content which only human reporters can. It’s a message given added credence by the fact that much of United Robots leadership, from CEO to sales director, are former journalists themselves.

The company’s chief product officer Henning Johannesson was head of sport at MittMedia, one of Sweden’s largest media groups, when the company became United Robot’s launch publisher partner in 2016. The first sports bot, charged with producing publishable local match reports immediately upon final results being announced, was trained personally by Johannesson.

‘We were worried automation might damage the brand’

Now an evangelist for the power of automation, United Robots’ CPO happily admits that he and his former newsroom team needed some initial convincing.

“We had a lot of negative attitudes towards automation because nobody had proven that it worked in the media,” he says. “To be honest, I was quite cynical myself. I don’t think redundancies were the main concern; people were more worried about how it might damage the brand: could what was produced really be as good as what we were doing already? Would we be able to ensure quality?”

“People quickly came to see that the quality was there and we could report in more depth than we had previously. What’s more, reporters realised they no longer necessarily had to be at every game in person, filing match reports late at night. They could take more care about the games and stories they covered.”

A year after the introduction of Sports Bot, MittMedia’s sports section had significantly grown digital conversions and new subscribers with automated reports like the one pictured above. Its success also promoted the company to investigate the possibility of a further addition. It was a decision that would result prompt another spike in subscriptions.

“We saw that the real estate articles that we produced manually were really exploding, everybody was reading them, but we didn’t have the time or energy to write more. That’s when we started investigating producing them automatically.”

So, another new colleague arrived in the form of a real estate bot. Automating property content saw the average number of articles rise from two per month to 480 per week at each of the company’s 19 local sites. In one year alone, the real estate robot produced 61,800 articles, generating 7.4m logged-in pageviews, 17.6m pageviews in total, and 900 subscription sales.

 Since those early success stories, United Robots has grown its partnership base considerably, working with publishers across Scandinavia, Europe and North America.

Six years on from launch, United Robots supplies automated content to some 85% of the Sweden’s local news sites (as well as a large proportion of Norwegian local publishers). Other markets, however, have considerable ground to make up.

“I feel Scandinavia has led the way and now we are really seeing automation take hold elsewhere,” says Cecilia Campbell, United Robots’ chief marketing officer. “The UK remains a bit behind and there’s still some education to do; busting a number of the myths around perceived problems and proving that this is something that can work.

“But the UK faces the same challenges as everywhere else: there are not enough newsroom resources, but we still to produce more content, and content of a higher quality, to keep going – especially in local journalism. They need to find a solution.”

News automation can be simple for journalists

One such myth surrounds the complexity of the technology itself – or at least its deployment. United Robots enables journalists to lead the process on the publisher’s side, training their robot in house style and guidelines, without the need for a degree in computer science. This helps editorial buy-in and a content-focused approach, while also enabling publishers without huge resources – particularly local and regional media – leverage automation to an extent that would not be feasible otherwise.

“A lot of companies offer the tools, but then leave you to do all the heavy lifting. That can be an incredibly complicated process,” explains Johannesson.

“The Washington Post or New York Times might do this by themselves, but that’s not really an option for most. We are there and work with publishers across the entire process. Being journalists ourselves helps because we understand the newsroom and those that we’re working with.”

A journalist-led approach on the publisher side also makes for a more sustainable solution.

“Automation often begins because you have one real robot enthusiast who starts a project of their own using self-service tools available elsewhere,” explains Campbell. “But being dependent on one person is a risk – if they go, is there anybody left to carry things on? Because we take care of the tech, the journalists don’t have to become experts in how the technology works; they can focus on what they want it to do.”

On robot journalism, publishers should start with: Why?

“It’s the first thing I ask when going into meetings with publishers: “Do you know why you’re doing it?”, Johannesson explains. “Six years ago, people were predominantly interested in testing out the technology itself. Nowadays, the conversation is much more about its effects.”

As for what the robots might be writing about, the chief product officer sees particular potential in the UK around real estate, business, and crime reporting. Any topic is feasible, he says, so long as it meets two criteria. “There needs to be a lot of reliable data and there needs to be public interest,” Johannesson explains. “Beyond that, there are so many possibilities.”

*This article was produced in association with Press Gazette commercial partner United Robots

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