Here’s a riddle for you:

If a programme set up to support high-quality journalism in the digital age funds the creation of article-writing robots, is it really supporting journalism?

The answer might depend on how you define “journalism” to begin with.

A few days ago, Google announced the recipients of the latest round of funding from its Digital News Initiative. The Digital News Initiative, or DNI, is “a partnership between Google and news publishers in Europe to support high-quality journalism through technology and innovation.” The latest round of funding sees almost 22 million € worth of funding allocated to 107 projects in 27 countries across Europe.

One successfully funded project in the UK is causing a bit of a stir. Google has awarded 706,000€ to the Press Association to fund RADAR, a project that will see 30,000 new stories a month created for local news media – by computers.

RADAR, or to give the project its full name, Robots And Data And Reporters, aims to use open government and local authority databases to create automatic stories about health, crime, employment and so on. It will be overseen by a team of five (human) journalists, but the bulk of the work will be done by AI.

Canadian news outlet Global News writes that,

“The envisioned workflow would begin with human journalists identifying open data sets and “creating detailed story templates across a range of topics including crime, health and employment.” The robotic reporter would then take over and scan the data, use language generation software to craft together story text and automatically generate relevant photos and video.”

According to Press Association editor Pete Clifton, “At a time when many media outlets are experiencing commercial pressures, RADAR will provide the news ecosystem with a cost-effective way to provide incisive local stories, enabling audiences to hold democratic bodies to account.

“Skilled human journalists will still be vital in the process, but RADAR allows us to harness artificial intelligence to scale up to a volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually.”

Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here. It’s tempting to give a knee-jerk response and declare that news bots could never replace human reporters, but there are cases in which that’s true and cases in which that is patently false. Artificial intelligence and natural language processing are getting more and more advanced. We already have software that can generate email marketing copy that “beats humans more than 95% of the time” (according to its creators) and an AI personal assistant who can convincingly schedule meetings and reply to your emails. Add to that the fact that much of news reporting has already become about rewording press releases, and it’s not hard to see how a robot could do that job perfectly well.

But that doesn’t mean that RADAR will do exactly what Clifton claims it will for local journalism. I’m stuck on the part where he says that automated news articles can help “audiences to hold democratic bodies to account”. Holding elected bodies to account is indeed one of the most important roles of local journalism, and one which has suffered the most in the wake of so many local newspapers closing down. But it’s this which typically requires the touch of a human reporter: digging into possible leads, making connections between different pieces of evidence, interpreting the data, and weaving a story from it all that local readers can follow along with.

Can automated data bots do any of this? Without having read a sample of the articles that the Press Association plans to produce with RADAR, it’s hard to say; my guess is that automated news articles would at best be able to create a fairly basic narrative around the data in question, leaving it to the audience to identify any suspect details or spot any interesting connections – a job that, normally, would be done by journalists.

I would define journalism, broadly speaking, as the act of rendering information more accessible to an audience. So once the onus is on the audience to interpret the data themselves, can it really be called journalism?

A lot of details of how the Press Association plans to implement this project are still unknown. 30,000 news stories a month sounds like a lot (The Register‘s coverage of the story ran with the headline ‘Google coughs up $800k to build news bots that will flood UK with 30,000 ‘articles’ a month‘), but divided up among the entirety of the UK’s regional and local news outlets, it may not amount to that many articles per publication. Ultimately I imagine it’ll be up to the editors to decide how much of their news coverage they want to be made up of robot reporting.

There are also many kinds of local stories that can’t be told through data. Human interest stories, local event coverage, reviews and other features – these are all types of articles that can’t be assembled using a template and open databases. So there is plenty of need still for the human touch in local journalism. I’m guessing that the plan is for the ‘robo-reporters’ to take some of the weight off the human journalists, by automating the mindless stuff and freeing them up to write the stories that really require a person to tell them.

In an article for The Guardian about the future of local news reporting last December, Sam Blackledge wrote that Britain’s local newspapers will need an “army of reporters” if they are to survive in the digital age. He wasn’t talking about an army of automated news copy-writers that would pad the pages of the local papers, but an army of determined, inquisitive local journalists who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. However, maybe the existence of the former can free up the latter to spend more time doing what they do best.

Still, in a world where journalism of all kinds struggles to turn a profit, I can’t help but feel a little rueful seeing hundreds of thousands of Euros go towards funding short-form, automated news articles instead of supporting well-crafted, in-depth, long-form journalism, of the kind that’s much harder to come by nowadays.

But there is a fantastic diversity of projects being funded with the money from Google’s Digital News Initiative, of which RADAR is only one. In the UK alone, other successfully funded projects include ‘News Immersified‘, a project by AJ Labs which aims to deliver journalism in interactive form via a messaging app; ‘Watch Together‘, which combines live streaming the news with collaborative viewing and real-time discussion; and ‘DMINR‘, a project by my alma mater, City University London, which will create a “research and verification tool to help journalists work with big data and conduct investigations in the digital era.”

385,000€ has also been awarded to help “scale up” Jimmy Wales’ collaborative news endeavour WikiTribune, which I intend to do a separate post on at some point.

The DNI’s third round of funding also coincided with the publication of the first DNI Annual Report, which contains some fascinating stats about the different kinds of projects funded and their early impact, and which I will definitely also be digging into in a separate article.

In the meantime, I’ll wait to see the impact of this “flood” of automated news content into our local media. Best-case scenario, we won’t notice anything, but some intrepid reporters might be able to publish five-page exposés of local government corruption where they would have otherwise been stuck in the newsroom churning out rewritten press releases.

Worst-case scenario, the future of local journalism in the digital age will remain murky, and we’ll go looking for another way to fix the problem.


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