Is AI the saviour of local news?
By Jeremy Durrant, Chief Media Strategist, and former local news reporter
The salary was basic, and the hours were long – as were the obligatory and regular evening parish council meetings. However, in my opinion you couldn’t wish for a better and more fun start to a career than a role as a trainee news reporter at a local newspaper.
Variety at work is something to be cherished and there can be few more diverse roles than in local newspapers. I spent around four years working in regional reporting and during that time covered plane crashes, murders, General Elections, and countless council meetings. I also met a decent sprinkling of celebrities, royalty, as well as regularly speaking with our four local MPs.
Interspersed with those were the bread and butter of local reporting which can be a mix of the banal and bizarre on occasion but is the essence of chronicling a community and the people within it. There were sweet moments such as interviewing couples who have celebrated 50 years of marriage. You always had to ask them about the secret of their marital longevity and nine times out of 10, it was always the same response – a good sense of humour and never going to bed on an argument.
And like nearly all jobs what really made it was the people. Most reporters were young and starting out and collectively we didn’t always know what we were doing but if you learned quickly and didn’t make too many mistakes in the obituary write-ups, you were generally fine. There were enough seasoned veterans and a few lifers to pass on their knowledge and ensure no libel laws were broken. I still today use the lessons first taught two decades ago albeit my 100-words per minute shorthand has long since slowed to the point of redundancy.
Yet this is a rose-tinted snapshot of a career in the past where we had the resource and time to dedicate to covering local communities in detail. Today’s local reporting is vastly different. For a start, there are nowhere near the same number of people employed in local newsgathering. Critical advertising revenues such as people wanting to sell their cars and houses have long since been digitally disintermediated and newspaper budgets and headcounts have had to right-size accordingly.
As well as a print edition – if such a thing still exists – there are multiple social and digital platforms to write for and reporters must take all their own pictures as well as record video. Geographically, it is very likely they are now nowhere near most of the communities they are writing about. This in my view ultimately undermines the authenticity of calling it local news and removes much of the best bits of the job.
But is it all doom and gloom – perhaps not? I noted a recent Newsquest Media Group job advert for an AI-assisted reporter, based in Essex. On face-value you could argue that this is another nail in the local news coffin which will lead to fewer reporters and a further drop in quality of content.
Yet the reality may be far from that. AI tools could be the saviour of local news and even dare I say it democracy and accountability.
The Newsquest advert states that the successful candidate will be at the forefront of a “new era in journalism”, utilising AI technology to create national, local, and hyper-local content, while also applying their traditional journalism skills.
It goes on to say: “This is an exciting opportunity for someone passionate about journalism and AI’s potential to contribute to how we produce and consume news, without losing sight of the importance of quality reporting and writing.”
In all honesty, much of local newspaper article writing is somewhat formulaic. It needs to cover the who, what, where how and why of a story and there is no doubt with the right oversight some of it could be outsourced to machines. In fact, it is already happening, and we probably don’t realise how much.
But what are the benefits? Well ultimately it creates time and space for already stretched reporters to focus on other elements of their jobs. To write pieces which are more complex, require more time, investigation, and probing. In short using more of those traditional journalism skills rather than being a copy and paste factory for press releases.
The other potentially transformative area is data analysis. In days gone by part of the traditional role was poring over planning applications or court lists for potential stories. With fewer reporters available covering much bigger geographic areas, the ability to dedicate time to this is much reduced if not non-existent.
However, a failure to do so undermines accountability and the scrutiny of decision-making which is a vital element of local news reporting. With the right guidance AI can be trained to short circuit some of the research and even generate copy.
Ultimately local journalism was, and is, a job centred around people talking to people to tell stories. If machines can make that more possible then that must be a very positive headline from the current debate around the challenges and opportunities in the use of AI.