Credit: By Yuri Samoilov on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

As technology is playing an increasingly important role in the news industry, journalists are using it to develop quicker and better ways to reach their audience.

This is why On The Wight, a local news website based in the Isle of Wight, has started experimenting with automation in some of its stories.

The small editorial team of two spent the last six to nine months working with Open University academic and technology expert Tony Hirst to develop a computer program that automatically creates reports based on the monthly Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) unemployment figures.

"I have an absolute aversion to the phrase 'robot journalism' because I think it demeans journalism," Simon Perry, co-owner and publisher of On The Wight, told

"We're not seeing [automation] as a way to cut costs, but rather as a way of liberating content and telling people what they want to know about the JSA figures or other data that we're working with, while freeing up journalists to do other work."

'Robot journalism' has been used as an alternative term for automation, something that news organisations like the Associated Press, Pro Publica and The New York Times have recently started using in their storytelling process.

The Associated Press began tests in December 2012 and has been using automation to produce earnings reports since last summer, increasing the volume of published stories from 300 to 3,700 per quarter.

Let's take the time we'd spend writing the article to actually start working on the algorithm and changing it so that the report becomes better each timeSimon Perry, On The Wight
However, developing an algorithm to save time on reporting is not a process many publishers have delved into, particularly because it requires time and financial resources.

On The Wight has so far published two automated articles. The algorithm, built using a programming language called Python, looks at the figures and produces a short write-up, containing key phrases chosen by the editorial team.

It then adjusts the keywords and sentences according to the way in which the figures fluctuate in a given month and automatically creates a graph to accompany the article before publication.

At the moment, a journalist has to start up the program but Perry said it could become fully automated in the future.

"The idea behind it was 'let's take the time we'd spend writing the article to actually start working on the algorithm and changing it so that the report becomes better each time'," Perry said.

He believes "having a filter in place is important", which is why the reports are checked by a member of the editorial team before publication, to verify their accuracy and make small changes such as adding subheads if needed.

As the software is still in its early development stages, the team is looking at expanding its features to support different types of data and a bigger range of key phrases, as well as splitting the figure analysis according to gender or location.

Perry is also considering making it available as a paid-for service for other local publishers interested in automation, such as those with small editorial teams who may not have the resources to develop a software themselves.

"On a national level, the next step would be injecting it into a CMS like WordPress and people would be able to decide whether or not they want to publish it, but they'd have the content ready to be accessed by their readers."

On The Wight launched ten years ago as a platform called VentnorBlog, covering the arts and music scene in the town of Ventnor.

It later transitioned to a "hard news website" that currently reaches over 100,000 unique visitors a month and runs on an advertising-based business model.

The platform publishes 10 to 15 stories a day, a mix of its own reporting and contributions from local writers, on community issues that include politics and education.

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