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“Robots produce the information, journalists do the journalism”: McClatchy goes real estate robotic

US local media group McClatchy has signed an agreement with automated journalism provider United Robots for a pilot partnership to deliver home sales news in Sacramento County, CA, and nine other locations. The partnership, which is now live, sees content delivered automatically to McClatchy end points, including sites, apps and the publisher’s CMS.

The agreement includes automatically generated stories about individual sales as well as aggregated articles on aspects such as median or average price, and top lists of most expensive homes sold during given periods for given areas or neighborhoods.

The articles, generated by United Robots’ Real Estate robot and based on real estate data from industry data providers, also include images of properties as well as satellite maps, through a global agreement United Robots holds with Google.

Sacramento Bee, CA

Brainstorming gaps

Speaking at a content automation workshop last month, McClatchy Managing Editor, Audience Engagement, Cynthia DuBose said that the decision to start testing content automation in some of the McClatchy newsrooms followed “brainstorming to look at our gaps”.

DuBose and her team realised that many of the topics driving new audience were information topics like real estate, high school sports, restaurant reviews – content the newsrooms did not have the manpower to cover.

We want our journalists to produce journalism, not track down information. They should focus on what they are skilled to do. 

Cynthia DuBose, Managing Editor, Audience Engagement, McClatchy

In a tight U.S. housing market, McClatchy identified real estate as a key area to focus on, “We have real estate reporters in some of these markets. They are not covering the most expensive home sold last week, the bot does that. The reporters are writing the trend stories, things like ‘This neighborhood is no longer affordable to the middle class.’ That’s the journalism. But the top ten most expensive list, that’s done by the bot.”

McClatchy is now taking the reporter-robot collaboration one step further. “We’re creating a new product by packaging the journalists’ stories together with the top house sales information. This gives us a really nice, layered newsletter for people who are interested in real estate.”

The importance of buy-in within the newsroom

DuBose added that for automation to really work, it needs a ‘champion’ in every market who is fearless of AI and also data-driven in their approach, “This was really important when we started with the real estate content because we knew SEO would be a key piece of that. The editor that led our first effort [at the Sacramento Bee] was very keyed into this. He carefully tracked what happened when the headlines the robot wrote were tweaked for SEO, improving results on the way.”

It was really important for newsrooms to understand from the outset that this was not a question of robot vs human, more that it was a supplement to what we already knew worked.

Cynthia DuBose, Managing Editor, Audience Engagement, McClatchy

McClatchy’s automated texts all carry a bot byline, such as “By the SacBee bot”, as well as a disclaimer which explains that while a robot wrote the text, editors were involved in the process and quality control. There’s also an email address for feedback, which goes to DuBose. “I’ve not had any negative feedback, it’s been more about asking for more information.”

A spokesperson for United Robots concludes, “Automated real estate content is one of United Robots’ most popular services and, as it allows publishers to write about every house sale in every neighborhood, this content is best in class for driving reader engagement.”

Watch the full Automation Workshop at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit below: