Robot revives local business journalism at Bergens Tidende
Big Data For News Publishers | 12 July 2022
For the first time, a robot has won gold — actually, two golds — at INMA’s Global Media Awards. Bergens Tidende’s (BT) local business robot won in the categories Best Subscription Niche Product and Best New Digital Product.
Of course, these prizes are not so much about the robot but about editorial team members at BT that figured out how to leverage content automation to take their local business journalism to the next level.
Here’s how they are doing it.
In the summer of 2021, BT went live with automated coverage of the results of all Bergen companies with a turnover of €300,000 or more (€500,000 for companies in the wider Vestlandet region). The business bot turns annual reports (which are publicly available in Norway) into easy-to-understand summaries of a company’s revenue, profit, and profit before tax. The robot also includes information about the number of employees, CEO salary, and dividends in the article.
A year on and the local business bot bagged two golds and one silver at the Global Media Awards. Jan Stian Vold, project lead at BT, emphasised how much the awards mean to his team: “It’s of course very rewarding and satisfying to win such prestigious awards in a competition with great colleagues from around the world. It’s highly motivating for us in Bergens Tidende and an inspiration to keep going with automated content.”
Before the automation of the annual reports content, local business was an underreported segment at BT, as reporters’ time was focused on investigative journalism rather than breadth of reporting. Thanks to the automated business content, the publisher can suddenly cover all industries. As a bonus, the business coverage is a smash hit with subscribers.
According to Vold, the automated content boosts BT’s local business journalism in a number of ways.
Many subscribers read the business content every day. The business content is a massive success with subscribers and has frequently topped the most-read lists since launch, according to Vold: “That’s really unheard of when it comes to automated content. Seventy articles have been read by more than 10,000 subscribers, an outstandingly high number for an automated service in a publication the size of BT.”
The most-read article, a story about a traditional roadhouse, reached 40,000 views. About 10,000 subscribers have visited the service daily. (For perspective, BT had 65,000 active digital subscribers daily at the turn of the year.) In total, two million pageviews were generated from July to December 2021.
The bot covers what staff doesn’t have time for. Journalism is changing and a lot of stories local news titles used to cover don’t get attention. This is logical and unavoidable, Vold said, given the reduction in editorial staff in recent years.
“The problem is that this leads to reduced content diversity. Automated journalism is a remedy to fix this, but more than that, it can provide subscribers with a completely unique new depth,” Vold said.
During the COVID-19 crisis, BT was able to continuously document how companies in vulnerable industries were doing thanks to the business bot. The publication also uncovered large local companies never mentioned in BT before, among them “several large cash cows.”
It’s also worth noting the new business content is redefining local business journalism. A regional newspaper like BT is usually not staffed for niche journalism and hyper-local content. Editorial staff tend to choose stories that are interesting and important to as many readers as possible.
“This leaves society and readers with blind spots,” Vold said. “The business bot sheds light on these, which adds substantial value to our subscribers. Subscribers can now read about their favourite neighbourhood restaurant and the shop on the corner, in addition to local investigative and explanatory journalism.”
Trying to cover local business news to meet the demands of all niche interest reader groups has been beyond the capacity of the newsroom for years. “With the next level of content automation, the dynamic changes — to the benefit of subscribers,” Vold said.
More data is offering new, investigative journalism opportunities. The service builds up a unique database, which can lead to more investigative journalism. “We’ve already produced a massive investigative piece on women’s representation in local top management,” Vold said. “The journalistic value will increase over the years, as the aggregated data becomes even more deep and accurate. This in turn will increase the value for the subscribers.”