$807,000

provided by google

 TO make ai available for journalism 

In early July, Google made a research and development grant worth $807,000 to the Press Association (PA), the leading news agency in the UK and Ireland, to fund a project designed to harness AI for the purposes of journalism. The purpose of the project, dubbed RADAR – Reporters And Data And Robots – is to enable a small team of reporters, assisted by artificial intelligence, to publish a sizeable stream of local stories, taking advantage of the trend towards open information. “The aim of RADAR will be to publish up to 30,000 articles a month, drawing on the huge amount of open data provided by government agencies, local authorities, the police and other bodies,” revealed Pete Clifton, Editor-in-Chief of the Press Association, explaining: “The idea is to write compelling local stories which might well be drowned out in the mass of information available. The ever-increasing availability of open datasets provides many opportunities to decipher what local authorities are doing. However, the fact is that very few local press agencies have the necessary resources to aggregate this data, analyse and interpret it.” So the focus of RADAR, which is scheduled to be up and running in 2018, will be to satisfy the increasing demand for a “supply of accurate, fact-based news to various regional media outlets across the UK and also provide services to independent publishers, bloggers, and hyperlocal outlets.” Among the main news themes cited by the PA Editor-in-Chief are crime, health and employment.


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An expert eye

Pete Clifton

Editor-in-Chief of 

the Press Association

Journalists’ skills and experience central to the RADAR project

The Press Association is working on the project in conjunction with Urbs Media, an automation software startup which specialises in combing through large open datasets to help gather and disseminate information. Peter Clifton explained: “We are working on an end-to-end operational flow so as to generate a large stream of information from the mass of data. Human intelligence will be at the controls, aided by artificial intelligence.” RADAR is based on AI algorithms which process vast quantities of data, but human beings will continue to play a central role. 

"It has to be a mixture of good human insight to sit at the heart of this, with intelligent use of automation to scale it up (…) and if you tried to do that manually it wouldn’t be economically viable,” stressed Clifton. Experienced journalists will decide on topics and story angles and draft a template for an article. AI will then be harnessed to provide actual figures and set out the information pertaining to different local situations in order to create a large number of varied factual stories on essentially the same theme.

Prospective

Silicon Valley is finally reinventing the traditional press

Archive April 2017

Lucy A. Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, quoted in US entertainment and media news website TheWrap, points out that the Press Association project is not an isolated case. Nowadays robots are to be found everywhere in press rooms, especially when it comes to writing data-heavy news articles. In the early days they were widely used to produce summaries of sports events. Google’s latest initiative is a clear indication that the Internet giants intend to take a stake in this trend. 

The Washington Post, which was taken over by Amazon in 2013, has also been using artificial intelligence to boost the capacity of its journalistic team. Early in 2016, the paper, famous for first breaking the Watergate scandal, began using a bot called a Heliograf. In similar vein to its British counterpart, Heliograf has been designed to draft a large number of straightforward, factual, data-focused articles. The bot was initially tested internally during the US election primaries, during the winter and spring of 2016. The first Heliograf articles were then published during the 2016 summer Olympic Games in Rio. Since then, the bot has been used to help cover all elections taking place in the United States, drafting short articles assessing the outcome of every ballot and then providing the final results. The articles include data on voter participation, the electorate, plus a breakdown by geographical area to suit a given readership. The figures are updated in real time as survey results come in.

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Towards augmented journalism

With both Heliograf and RADAR, artificial intelligence is taking on the tasks performed in the past by typewriters, computers, spell-checkers and, more recently, the availability of information on the Internet, boosting journalists’ productivity by automating the most repetitive parts of their job.

Meanwhile Peter Clifton stresses that journalists will retain their added value. “I won’t be sending a robot or an algorithm to cover criminal court proceedings for example. Nor could a robot knock on a door to ask for an interview. I’m certainly not replacing reporters with robots,” he insists, pointing out: “Google’s grant allows us to recruit a team of five journalists to work on the project. At a time when many media outlets are experiencing commercial pressures, RADAR will provide the news ecosystem with a cost-effective way to provide incisive local stories, enabling audiences to hold democratic bodies to account.”

An expert eye

Jeremy Gilbert

Director of Strategic Initiatives 

at the Washington Post

Heliograf frees up journalists from the most repetitive parts of their job
Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Washington Post, takes a similar view. “Heliograf frees up journalists from the most repetitive parts of their job, thus enabling them to concentrate on high-quality reporting, which they alone are capable of,” he underlines. In addition to automating the drafting of short factual articles, Heliograf is also used to update articles long after their publication date, automatically inserting the latest facts and figures superseding those originally cited by the journalist. Going forward, Heliograf could also enable writers to automatically list all the themes that people are discussing on the Internet, and to comb through huge databases in order to pick out anomalies which could provide interesting topics for journalists to write about. Gilbert adds: “Heliograf will never replace journalists, but it can make them more efficient. It also allows us to cover subjects and events that have smaller but passionate audiences, and would thus otherwise be less profitable to cover.

Internet giants’ interest in the press

One question remains unanswered however: why should the Internet giants be making such huge investments in modernising the press? RADAR and Heliograf are only two examples of a number of similar initiatives. Google made its grant under the Digital News Initiative (DNI), a partnership between Google and publishers in Europe intended to support high-quality journalism through technology and innovation. The DNI Innovation Fund grant to the PA is part of the third round of DNI project financing. RADAR was only one out of more than a hundred projects to receive financing from this source during this round. 

In addition, in July 2015 Google launched the Google News Lab, whose basic purpose is to help journalists master the new technologies, including of course encouraging them to make use of Google’s search engine, Google Maps and also YouTube. Via the News Lab, Google is also collaborating with media companies on data-related projects and with specialist startups in order to invent new tools for the convenience of journalists. Meanwhile that other Silicon Valley-based Internet heavyweight, Facebook, has been working on a number of media-oriented initiatives, ranging from spotting fake information to drafting ‘instant articles’. Recently the leading social network provider has been cooperating with a number of media firms on a venture that would require any user who has already read ten instant articles on the platform to pay for any subsequent articles s/he wishes to read.

seeking to gain influence

One possible interpretation of the tech giants’ incursions into the media world is that these moves may be politically motivated, providing them with a potential base for stepping up their influence on government so as to steer future regulation in a direction favourable to their interests. After all, it is no secret that the US Internet players are currently breaking all records on the lobbying front, with just three firms – Google, Facebook and Amazon – spending over $10 million on such activities during the second quarter of this year, in the United States alone. This money is being spent mainly in a bid to influence federal US policy on such topics as immigration, autonomous vehicles, commercial drones and online surveillance – all major issues for these companies. Investing in ‘soft power’ might therefore be a logical addition to their direct lobbying strategies. It is also worth noting that the Google parent company Alphabet was recently fined a record $2.42 billion by the European Commission for abuse of its monopoly position. Working with European media firms might be a good way to burnish the company’s image on the Old Continent.

 99% 

 ofthe increase

 in advertising revenus in Q3 2016  was captured by Google and Facebook

A second, more down-to-earth, reason for the Internet leaders’ move into the media business may be the financial gains they are likely to make on these investments. Companies such as Google and Facebook draw a considerable proportion of their revenue from Internet advertising. With an estimated $74 million for fiscal 2017, Google is making more money from online advertising than any other firm in the world. In second place is Facebook, which is well on the way to garnering $36 billion from this source of income this year. These two giants are benefiting hugely from the current growth in this sector: Google and Facebook captured fully 90% of the growth in advertising revenue on the Internet in first-half 2016, a share which rose to 99% in the third quarter! Meanwhile most news media are now switching to a business model based on online advertising. VICE Media, one of the very few North American media firms that can currently claim to be in rude financial health, has achieved notable success by betting on free content financed by advertising. Facebook and Google therefore have a strong interest in ensuring that a growing number of Internet users read news media, go on to their sites and click on the ads displayed. Which also means ensuring that, in spite of their current financial difficulties, the media outlets remain up-to-date, relevant and popular.

By Guillaume Renouard