Can AI save local news?
By Jeremy Durrant, Chief UK Media Strategist
Is artificial intelligence the final death knell in local reporting?
The man I had been summoned to see in our small office reception area over two decades ago was both incredulous and very cross. As the chief reporter for a provincial newspaper in a semi-rural part of Sussex, meeting the public both in and around the communities we served, as well as in our high street premises was a constant of the job. Being visible and engaging was an absolute necessity and the only way a 64-page edition of the paper could be filled each week. Local news is all about people and you had to be prepared to meet them in a variety of circumstances and emotional states.
The visitor that day was deeply unhappy with an article we had run on his son’s court appearance and subsequent conviction. I forget now the specific misdemeanour in question, but the father accused our article of “falling into the same trap as the jury” in concluding that his son was guilty. Now of course we hadn’t concluded anything but instead had simply stationed a colleague in the Crown Court earlier that week who had reported very accurately on the guilty verdict handed down. I listened (a lot), explained, and despite maintaining his offspring’s continued innocence, he eventually conceded that this wasn’t a grand conspiracy and we had merely factually reported the actual proceedings. He vowed to continue his fight for family redemption elsewhere.
This type of interaction was not uncommon but the point of the anecdote is that we were present to report on justice being served. I oversaw a team of three full-time reporters plus additional senior part-time help to service a population area of circa 50,000 people. Our weekly offering was paid for by between 5,500 and 7,000 people. A decade earlier the staffing was considerably higher and the circulation probably double.
Every day reporters were in court, attended council meetings or open elements of the local NHS trust board. We made regular trips to the police station and the ambulance service for briefings and there was a twice-daily phone call to the fire station to see if they had attended any emergencies. Week nights were spent in village halls at lengthy parish council meetings and weekends saw a tour of school fetes or other community events. People rang us all the time wanting their stories to be featured in the paper. We had pool cars.
In my four years covering local news, I wrote on everything from the unquestionably banal to the unrefutably tragic. We had murders, plane crashes, inquests and even the odd celebrity interview, all intermingled with school news, fundraising initiatives, local/national election results, planning disputes and so many town mayor visits.
It was a brilliant first job and many of the skills I learned as a young graduate serve me well in my chosen profession today.
Fast-forward and the same newspaper I worked for is still limping on today but circulation now is but a few hundred a week. The editorial resource is not based in the town but about 30 miles away and the content hardly seems local at all. With online and social channel needs to fulfil, there probably isn’t time to get up from a desk let alone leave an office for whoever is charged with cranking out the copy. It may even all be done from home.
In so many cases for local papers, financial rationalisation has drastically reduced the headcount of reporters and stripped them out of their localities. The result is a product completely unrecognisable to the one I knew and loved working for.
The slow erosion of an adequately resourced local press has wider ramifications. It means a significant drop in accountability when it comes to local authority decision-making. It undermines social cohesion and democracy, resulting in communities lacking a campaigning voice, champion or cheerleader. It leaves a vacuum where other less reliable, less researched sources are the basis of local information. In my experience gossip and hearsay on local community Facebook groups have crept into the void. Ultimately, from a historical perspective, local newspapers have also always been important scribes of society for the benefit of future generations.
However, technology which on many levels has been a major contributor to the downfall of print local media through the complete disruption of key advertising revenue streams may actually be a saviour on the content side now and increasingly into the future.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) to support or fill the gap in local reporting is actively being developed in both the UK and abroad. This will not necessarily be a case of the machines taking human jobs as many of these roles have long since been cut in the fight to make ends meet for publishers. However, there are clear opportunities where large data analysis can be undertaken by machines and stories published as a result. As always, the quality of data input will be crucial in informing the quality of the output. But there is the potential for depleted news resources to be supplemented by AI reporting.
The Press Association (PA) has already successfully established RADAR which stands for Reporters And Data And Robots. It fuses the best of journalism skills with AI tools and has created hundreds of thousands of stories many of which we may have unknowingly read already.
Reach PLC, one of Britain’s biggest newspaper groups, publishing 240 regional papers in addition to its national titles, very recently published its first AI-generated stories as part of an editorial experiment. It was a listicle style article about things to do in Newport. These projects will only increase in frequency, scale and ambition. Is it a bad thing and the final death knell in local reporting or can it prove to be a valuable resource which increases local scrutiny?
The ultimate future for all of us will potentially be built around receiving a hyper-localised and personalised news stream tailored to every nuance of our lives. However, we are not there yet and it will be fascinating to see how publishers increasingly use AI as a tool to support better-resourced local journalism in years to come.
How I would have longed 20 years ago to have a computer help me decipher and write up all the winners and highly commended from a full day covering an agricultural or horticultural show. People’s appetite and ultimately their curiosity for what’s happening in their locality hasn’t diminished and that is the very foundation of local news but the economic model to make it happen has been under threat for some time.
I would love to wistfully look back on the copy I produced and claim there is no way a machine could ever replicate my perfect prose. However, the reality was a lot of it was formulaic almost mechanical in its structure and content. Editorial judgement and balance are a different matter but there seems clear potential for a role for AI to play. Now how you pitch a story from a PR perspective to a computer is another thing but that can be worried about later.
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