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Forbes doubles monthly visitors with Bertie, an AI-driven CMS

Forbes’ new tools take content creation to an entirely new level.

Recently we covered how artificial intelligence tools were transforming the way journalists worked, by mining mountains of data to identify potential stories for reporters. We also mentioned how news organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters were using robo-journalists to write articles. But these AI tools were limited in scope, to covering facts and figures driven stories like sporting events and elections.

A lot of people don’t realize this, but a lot of the news stories you read now are increasingly written by artificial intelligence. You get these news releases about things that are happening in sports, for example, or in business. But people are not creating these pieces anymore. It’s actually AI that’s releasing this information. Lots of us are spending hours on our mobile phones reading updates about events and news flashes never realizing it’s AI that’s generating this stuff now.

Stephen Ibaraki, Futurist, and Founder/Chairman, UN ITU AI For Good Global Summit with XPRIZE Foundation

AI in publishing: “Thought starter”

Forbes is trying to go beyond that with its new CMS. Christened Bertie, the tool was rolled out last summer to its editorial staff and senior contributors in North America. What makes it special is that it can learn from and customize its output for different writers. It can recommend article topics to contributors based on their earlier pieces, and also suggest headlines and images that are in sync with the sentiment of their story.

So for example, a Forbes contributor specializing in writing about the automobile industry might find the tool presenting content for a potential article on Tesla. It would be accompanied with links to other relevant articles published on Forbes, as well as other websites. It would also provide images that may help improve the story. However, according to Salah Zalatimo, Forbes Media’s Chief Digital Officer, at present, it does not produce content that a contributor would be comfortable publishing as is. It serves more like a “thought-starter”.

According to a Forbes spokesman, the site doubled its number of monthly loyal visitors since rolling out the new CMS in July. Traffic also increased during this period reaching a 12-month high of 65 million monthly uniques in November 2018.

Over the past decades, computers have broadly automated tasks that programmers could describe with clear rules and algorithms. Modern machine learning techniques now allow us to do the same for tasks where describing the precise rules is much harder.

Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon

The promise of AI: From assistant to collaborator

With the above quote, Bezos effectively summed up the promise of AI, and it holds true for publishers as well. Zalatimo said to Digiday, “Bertie is part of a broader focus on using artificial intelligence to make publishing more efficient for Forbes staff, and to make it as easy as possible for visitors to consume multimedia content on Forbes’ sites.”

Forbes intends to make Bertie available to all contributors in North America and Europe in the first quarter of 2019. But that is not all, for the company has also developed, and is testing an AI story-writing tool. The product which does not have a roll-out date yet can write rough drafts of articles which its contributors can simply polish and enhance to get it ready for publication.

Warning bells for journalists? Not according to Ibaraki, who says, “This year there is actually some data indicating that because of enhanced capabilities and productivity, as well as a growing economy, jobs may even increase rather than decrease.”

Our ambition is that all Forbes authors collaborate with an AI system that knows how to help them best. We want authors to enjoy collaborating with their AI-powered publication assistant and extract value from it. Excellent stories can result from that collaboration. Our ambition is to make Bertie an assistant that writers can relate to, working alongside authors to create great stories.

Luis Capelo, Former Head of Data Products at Forbes

Technology indistinguishable from magic

Tools like Forbes’ Bertie, The Washington Post’s Heliograf, and Reuters’ Lynx Insights are part of a broader trend where publishers are trying to maintain high levels of editorial output while improving efficiency.

According to Ron Schmelzer, Principal Analyst at Cognilytica, a market research firm focused on AI, “Any sort of content creation-focused organization is pressured to make timely content and manage their costs. This is smack-dab in the middle of that trend. We’re going to see more of these tools to help with some of this volume-based flow.”

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Forbes’ and other publishers’ continued pushing of boundaries with AI may just be the beginnings of something that could fundamentally transform publishing. And when such a change comes with a substantial increase in engagement and traffic, the effect may indeed be deemed magical.

Download WNIP’s new Media Moments 2018 report, which dives deeper into last year’s developments in publishing, and looks at what opportunities 2019 could usher in. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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