Credit: Photo by Connor Coyne on Unsplash

Robots can produce pre- and post-match coverage of 26 football leagues in a fraction of the time it takes sports journalists, so you can see why the latter are feeling replaceable.

But original reporting is safe in times of automation says Henning Johannesson, chief product officer at Swedish technology company United Robots, who spoke at Newsrewired earlier this month (7 July 2020).

"Look at the robot as your new colleague," he says, adding that creating more content for diverse audiences can actually prevent redundancies and help newsrooms increase reader revenue.

United Robots turns structured data sets, such as weather updates, property sales and traffic incidents, into automated articles. Artificial intelligence chooses the angle, and a natural language generation tool produces the text. The company has generated more than one million articles for its publisher clients since 2015.

In his previous role as head of sport at MittMedia, one of Sweden's largest media groups, Johannesson realised his team needed to change their strategy to remain competitive in sports coverage - not just in football, but in ice hockey, too.

To understand what interests readers most, they studied the 1,000 most read sports articles published over a year and found these were mostly breaking news and stories about top league teams.

These are the stories that are worth a reporter's time and newsroom resources. Low-engagement match reports of low league fixtures still matter but, by using structured data from the results, they can be outsourced to robots.

"Go and write about the team's equipment manager who has worked with the team for 50 years, who has repaired boards and football boots," says Johannesson.

"Do that story instead of writing about the dull game that automation can do. This is what we didn’t want to waste journalists' time and money on."

There are exceptions for freak results like an 11-0 defeat, he says. Editorial teams are notified and can then make a judgement call on how to cover this kind of result.

A year after incorporating automation into its newsroom, MittMedia's sports section became a key source of reader revenue for the company. It now accounts for up to 40 per cent of the company's digital conversions and has attracted 10,000 new subscribers (at $9-per-month).

MittMedia is not the only media company embracing automation in Sweden.

In 2016 Östgöta Media launched Klackspark, a site about local football in Östergötland. The site is only able to fulfil its promise to readers to cover all matches in the region due to automation.

It publishes 850 articles a month, with 70 per cent of bylines going to robots. To add depth to an article, the United Robots Q&A tool sends relevant questions via text message to team coaches after matches. The coaches' quotes are automatically inserted into the articles.

"To keep this new website updated, they need the robots," says Cecilia Campbell, chief marketing officer at United Robots.

"Reporters do the really interesting stories that also convert people. It started as a free site, but it did so well they now put it behind a paywall that acts as a funnel to the [main] news site."

Campbell says it is not just in sports journalism where automation has proved to be a valued resource; it can be a useful tool for local content in both small and large newsrooms.

Swedish regional newspaper Bärgslagsbladet has a newsroom of just six including the chief editor plus one weekend reporter - no evening staff. Robots fill the gaps and provide 24/7 coverage, thereby easing the heavy workload of the reporters.

Sweden's largest newspaper Aftonbladet has also incorporated automation into its local verticals in Malmö and Uppsala, where more than 290 areas have no local reporters. It uses the traffic, weather and property data sets to meet the demand for local content.

"Readers also expect a level of service, and this is where robots can come in. There's no real limit in terms of volume and that means you can serve readers with comprehensive coverage," concludes Campbell.

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