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As posted on Press Association wins Google grant to run news service written by computers

Robots will help a national news agency to create up to 30,000 local news stories a month, with the help of human journalists and funded by a Google grant.

The Press Association has won a €706,000 (£621,000) grant to run a news service with computers writing localised news stories.

The national news agency, which supplies copy to news outlets in the UK and Ireland, has teamed up with data-driven news start-up Urbs Media for the project, which aims to create “a stream of compelling local stories for hundreds of media outlets”.

It won one of the largest grants to date from Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI), which is aimed at supporting innovation in European digital journalism. PA and Urbs Media will set up Radar – Reporters And Data And Robots – to produce thousands of stories each month.

PA’s editor-in-chief, Peter Clifton, said journalists will still be involved in spotting and creating stories and will use artificial intelligence to increase the amount of content. He said: “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. It is a fantastic step forward for PA.”

The scheme aims to meet an “increasing demand for consistent, fact-based insights into local communities” for regional media outlets as well as independent publishers and hyperlocal sites and bloggers, said PA.

Journalists will find stories in national open databases from sources including government departments, local councils and NHS trusts, and make “detailed story templates” for topics such as crime, health and employment. Multiple versions of the story will be created with Natural Language Software and will “scale up the mass localisation of news content”.

Clifton said it was “a hugely exciting development for PA” that would be “a genuine game-changer for media outlets across the UK and Ireland”.

PA and Urbs Media are making a workflow plan to generate the large volume of stories for clients. The grant will also be used to make database tools to collect and combine datasets and “editorial intelligence” will guide the automation process.

Radar will auto-generate graphics, video and pictures to add to stories. Money will also be used to boost PA’s distribution platforms to help its local customers find and use the content.

PA has already shared some of its plans with its regional customers. It is recruiting a team of five journalists to spot stories, create templates for them and edit the data-driven content.

Clifton
said: “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.”

The scheme is likely to begin early next year, as PA celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Tim Dawson, president of the National Union of Journalists, said the union was not Luddite or against technological innovation, but added: “Under-investment in journalism and journalists is a massive problem in the media across the UK. If money’s floating about, that’s really what it should be spent on.”

He said the fire at Grenfell Tower had highlighted the need for “robust journalism”. Dawson added: “I’ve no doubt that it is possible for computers and algorithms to mine data out of stories.”

He said it could give reporters more time to develop the stories, but added: “The real problem in the media is too little bona fide reporting. I don’t believe that computer whizzbangery is going to replace that. What I’m worried about in my capacity as president of the NUJ is something that ends up with third-rate stories which look as if they are something exciting, but are computer-generated so they [news organisations] can get rid of even more reporters.”

Dawson said readers are still attracted by well written and compelling stories and well crafted photographs.

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