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AI in the newsroom: Robots are now helping drive up subscriptions

Artificial intelligence tools for journalism are frequently in the news. From serving as super efficient and untiring assistants that help journalists identify compelling stories, to being reliable collaborators in content creation, they are increasingly getting integrated into journalistic life.

Maybe a few years ago AI was this new shiny technology used by high tech companies, but now it’s actually becoming a necessity. I think a lot of the tools in journalism will soon be powered by artificial intelligence.

Francesco Marconi, Head of Research and Development, The Wall Street Journal

Publishers from Reuters to AP, The Washington Post to Forbes have been using automated content creation tools. These are mostly used for creating news stories that are dominated by facts and figures, like financial news updates or sports coverage, and detect trends and anomalies that could signal interesting stories.

For example, during the 2016 election, The Washington Post used its AI tool, Heliograf to alert the newsroom when election results started trending in unexpected directions. This gave reporters lead time to thoroughly cover the news. Bloomberg’s automated content tool Cyborg can analyze a financial report as soon as its released, and immediately produce a news story that covers the most pertinent facts and figures.

The AP says automation has helped it scale up company earnings reports from 300 to 3,700 articles per quarter. Forbes is experimenting with its AI tool, Bertie to provide reporters with rough drafts and story templates. And recently, MittMedia, a Swedish local news publisher, said that it got almost 1,000 digital subscribers through automated content.

“Most efficient employee

According to Li L’Estrade, Head of Content Development, MittMedia, they found that real-estate articles were of “exceptional interest to MittMedia’s readers.” Following the insight, the publisher planned to publish articles about every property sold, but it “wouldn’t have made sense for its reporters to do that.” So they created the “Homeowners Bot.”

Watch Li L’Estrade talk about how the Homeowners Bot has helped Mittmedia scale up article production and drive up subscriptions.

“This productive bot is now our most efficient “employee”. If it were a human journalist, it would by far be our most effective employee at a fraction of the cost,” says L’Estrade. It can write short descriptions of houses that have been sold in the local market, accompanied by interesting angles, for example, the most expensive house sold in the year. It also adds images of the properties from Google Street View.

A really good robot text can have a bigger impact and be more read than a really good news article, but only if it’s a topic readers really care about. Each article reaches a smaller group of readers on average, but in total, we get an exchange on par with anything written by our most-read reporters.

Li LÉstrade, Head of Content Development, MittMedia

The automated system has helped MittMedia publish 480 articles per week on home sales. Between 2017 and 2018, it published about 34,000 articles that have brought in almost a thousand paying subscribers. What’s interesting is that all automated articles have the byline “MittMedia’s Text Robot,” but a survey by the publisher found that “2 out of 3 readers didn’t notice that and those who did notice, did not care.”


MittMedia now plans to increase the amount of automated content it publishes, taking it beyond real estate to include coverage of traffic and weather, sporting events, and even bankruptcies and company registrations.

Access to local news motivates subscribers

The American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a study in 2018 looking into the motivations of people who had recently subscribed to newspapers. The study, largest of its kind, surveyed over 4,100 newspaper subscribers who had subscribed to 90 local newspapers across the country in the last 3 months.

About 60% of the respondents said that their pre-subscription motivations included the desire to access local news and 31% wanted to support local journalism. Post-subscription, 30% said they did so to get access to local news and 78% said they valued getting reliable, accurate facts.

Mittmedia’s success at driving subscriptions through automated content becomes clearer with the insights from this study. Algorithms do not err on facts and figures and can produce a massive amount of informative local news stories, qualities that subscribers say they are looking for.

Enabling journalists do more high-value work

The AP says that automation has helped free up to 20% of its reporters’ time that was spent covering corporate earnings. “In the case of automated financial news coverage by AP, the error rate in the copy decreased even as the volume of the output increased more than tenfold,” said Francesco Marconi, Strategy Manager and AI Co-lead at the AP.

AI frees up journalists to focus on complex or more important stories that robots won’t be able to do justice to, like opinion pieces and stories that require creativity, intuition, and critical thinking.

As Lisa Gibbs, Director, News Partnerships, The Associated Press puts, “The work of journalism is creative, it’s about curiosity, it’s about storytelling, it’s about digging and holding governments accountable, it’s critical thinking, it’s judgment — and that is where we want our journalists spending their energy.