Credit: Image: Courtesy Dataminr

Staying on top of the 24-hour news cycle requires more than journalists scourging for sources, pounding pavements, and keeping a sharp eye on social media feeds.

Modern newsrooms are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to drive productivity gains and allow reporters to focus on what they do best: breaking news stories that set the agenda.

As AI and ML become more prominent in newsrooms, some industry workers worry human talent may be threatened. Canny news editors, however, understand how AI and ML can augment the efforts of their busy beat reporters, not replace them.

Most are planning to invest more in AI in the years to come, but not at the cost of head-count. Over three-quarters (78 per cent) think it is important to invest more in AI to help run their businesses, according to a survey of 200 media executives by the annual Digital News Project.

An even greater proportion (85 per cent) feel more journalists are needed to meet future challenges. The clear direction is for artificial and human intelligence to work hand-in-hand.

Virtual planning gives rise to real-life solutions

The applications of AI and ML in the newsroom are manifold but they all allow journalists to devote themselves to the stories that matter and pull them away from the mundane, manual, and time-consuming tasks that technology can often perform more efficiently.

Last year, 72 per cent of publishers said they had experimented with AI, according to the Digital News Project. More real-life deployment is expected this year.

The adoption of the technologies is seen falling into three main categories: using ML to personalise content and create better recommendations for audiences; automating more stories and videos (so-called robo-journalism); and providing tools to help journalists deal with information overload.

Providing bespoke content to target audiences has been a key plank of digital marketing for decades and is becoming ever more vital in the media industry as subscription-based models complement traditional advertising business.

Keeping consumers engaged not only encourages loyalty but also generates value for embedded brands. News-aggregating apps are already using AI-based algorithms to deliver personalised content from a range of providers, while some media outlets have teamed up with technology providers to roll out intelligent paywalls that tailor to hundreds of criteria for individual readers.

Shielding journalists from the data tidal wave

The greatest beneficiaries of AI in the newsroom may ultimately be the journalists who can be overwhelmed by the tidal wave of information that breaks day in, day out. Smartphones and social media have driven an explosion of data while providing a boundless platform for breaking news.

Few reporters have time to mine for the specks of gold among the millions of tweets and posts clicking over every minute on social media feeds. Yet, having created the conundrum, technology is also providing the solution.

Advanced algorithms are now helping reporters sift through the data and surface what is important through real-time alerts that ping straight to their desktops and phones.

Tailored specifically to their agenda, the alerts allow reporters time, space, and tools to research and follow-up. As they do so, the reporters stand to receive further real-time alerts during breaking news situations that allow for rapid updates to their stories and ensure they remain ahead of the curve for clients and consumers.

Drive, persistence, and quick wits are traits shared by most journalists. But the truly exceptional ones display a unique ability to connect the dots and see patterns in what might appear to be unrelated events.

AI is no different in this regard, with algorithms programmed to detect and report subtle changes that may signal emerging trends in markets, government policy, or geopolitical dynamics.

While the churn of social media can amplify and distort the true impact of emerging situations, real-time alerts put journalists in the driver's seat, allowing them to decide what is worth their attention, while filtering out the noise. Journalists can set their own query terms according to time, location, language, and source, and tweak the analytics when they see fit.

Real gains from AI deployment

AI-driven capabilities are proving a game-changer for the modern newsroom, where the human touch remains as valuable as ever. Reach plc, a leading UK publishing house with more than 70 news websites and print outlets, is among the industry's major adopters, having equipped more than 400 of its journalists with a solution developed by Dataminr, a leading AI business.

Reach not only credits the real-time alerting technology for allowing its journalists to jump on breaking news and create engaging content, but also for helping editors determine how to prioritise resources in an organisation that covers local news across a wide area.

"We use Dataminr to get a jump on breaking news before the story is widely picked up by our competitors," says Karyn Fleeting, head of audience engagement at Reach plc.

"With the gift of time, journalists can then deploy the resources and publish stories that matter to our readers—earlier than anyone else."

While the algorithms that underpin the technology may be complex, simplicity drives the deployment of AI in the newsroom. The technology combines seamlessly with other tools such as CrowdTangle and Chartbeat that provide editorial staff with the broad-brush view of content traffic at any point in time.

For all its functionality, AI is no substitute for effective, human-driven journalism, which often calls for intangible emotional qualities like empathy, as much as logic and reason. Yet it gives journalists crucial time advantages and tools at their finger-tips to do what they do best: produce stories and news reports that boost the credibility of their organisations.

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