PA to offer local news stories generated by humans and AI

The Press Association (PA) is to give UK news titles in its system access to local stories collaboratively written by AI and human journalists.

As part of a three-month trial, PA will generate thousands of localised variations of stories sourced by reporters, on subjects ranging from health and crime to housing and employment. It marks the next stage in PA’s RADAR (Reporters and Data and Robots) project, looking at how artificial intelligence can be leveraged in the newsroom.

PA has launched a website for local presses to sign up for the service. Under the RADAR banner, human reporters will write and template around 15 stories a week. Approximately 250 localised versions of these stories will then be generated for press to use, leading to a total output of close to 4,000 stories each week. PA says the system will “eventually create up to 30,000 localised stories each month”. To help support this effort, four new reporters have also been hired.

“The launch of our distribution website is a big step forward for RADAR,” said Gary Rogers, editor-in-chief of RADAR. “It means that we can expand beyond the titles in our pilot phase and provide strong local news stories to any title across the UK. The site is easy to use, and we hope that publishers will find it a valuable asset in helping to serve their local readers.”

“A high quality, high volume of content”

PA was previously awarded a €706,000 (£622,000) grant for an AI/human collaboration, for flesh-and-blood journalists to work alongside computer automation to produce “a daily diet of compelling stories”.

The RADAR project had been given the funding as part of the third round of Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI). On the DNI site, RADAR is classified as a “large” project, with the aim of providing “a high quality, high volume of content” for regional media outlets served by the news agency.  

“This will provide a significant boost to the local media industry at a time when budgets are under increasing pressure – but when the public’s interest in local news is as high as ever,” the description reads.

PA editor-in-chief Peter Clifton was keen to reassure the BBC at the time that human reporters would not be thrown out with the bathwater: “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”.

Working with Urbs Media, a team of reporters will find stories in open data sources such as government departments and NHS trusts. These journalists will create story templates on subjects ranging from health to crime, and the AI will then automatically generate many versions of the story using natural language processing tools. 

AI journalism

PA isn’t the first news agency to experiment with AI and automation. In 2016 it emerged that Reuters had been developing a tool to help it spot and verify breaking news on Twitter, using algorithms to filter tweets in real-time. The idea is that Reuters’ system is able to use AI to analyse tweets around breaking events, then automatically tweet out its own breaking news report about the event.

At the time, Reuters’ executive editor of data and innovation, Reg Chua, said the tool was born out of “an existential question for the news agency”. Reuters, like PA, bases its practice on being the first to break stories, then supplying these reports to other news outlets. With the speed of social media on one hand, and the sheer scale of modern news reporting on the other, these agencies are turning to automation to bump-up their immediate coverage.

Whether these experiments in automation should become a mainstay of 21st-century journalism is up for discussion. Tim Dawson, president of the National Union of Journalists, told The Guardian that, while the union was not against technological innovation, he was worried that computer-generated stories would provide news organisations an excuse to get rid of, more expensive, human journalists.   

“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.

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