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    Google's $800K News Bot Project to Flood UK Media with 30,000 Articles Per Month

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    Google has today awarded US$800,000 to the UK Press Association to develop robot reporters capable of crank out 30,000 articles a month for local newspapers and bloggers, based on open data sources including government departments, local authorities, police forces and more. While impressively space age, the endeavor raises some troubling questions.

    The cash injection is part of the search goliath's US$170 million Digital News Initiative, a three-year program ostensibly aimed at supporting traffic to European news sites, that may or may not also be designed to bump up Google's advertising revenue.

    Now in its third and final year, the fund is set to bankroll 107 projects in 27 countries to the tune of US$25 million in 2017.

    The project — Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR) — will be a collaborative effort between the Press Association (a newswire that feeds stories to local and national publications) and Urbs Media, a UK startup specializing in automated data journalism.

    "RADAR is intended to meet the increasing demand for consistent, fact-based insights into local communities, for the benefit of established regional media outlets, as well as the growing sector of independent publishers, hyperlocal outlets and bloggers," the Press Association said in a statement.

    Natural language processing software will be used to piece together information and emit computer-generated stories on an industrial scale, with a team of five journos applying the code to publicly available government databases to create stories about politics, crime, and so on, all from templates.

    Given much of the UK's local news reporting in the 21st century has been reduced to the rewriting of official press releases, the new application may be a double-edged sword — on the one hand, it would free up journalists to actually work their beat, on the other, the publishers of local titles — in 2017, all major conglomerates — may see it as an opportunity to get rid of staff entirely.

    In 1992, two hundred companies published local newspapers in the UK — by 2005 this had fallen to just 87, and as of 2015 a mere six companies own 80 percent of all local titles countrywide.

    In the same period, the amount of local newspapers in the UK fell from around 1,600 to just over 1,000. While the closure of a regional rag covering events in a tiny clutch of villages in the wilds of Kent may seem a meager development, the effects on and for a community when they lose their primary source of day-to-day information about civic and community life can be highly destructive.

    Much of this decline has been powered by the rise of internet-based news, and the fragmentation of information sources — perhaps a majority of the public now absorb their information from a variety of sources online, much of it delivered via social media. While this has beefed up the effective circulation of many local newspapers, increases in audience figures have not translated into profits commensurate with money lost via declining sales of print editions. This has had the knock on effect of many hundreds of journalist jobs being slashed everywhere.

    It's uncertain whether Google's robot will exacerbate this issue, or indeed another burgeoning local news phenomenon, that of "delocalization" — the reliance on official sources and PR for information, meaning only a very narrow range of sources within a community tend to be cited. In essence, local newspapers have become, or are becoming, mere megaphones for local government, police forces and other regional state organs.

    Still, while only time will tell what the effect of RADAR will be on the local newspaper industry in the UK, but robotic reporters are already employed by several media companies, with mixed results. China's artificial intelligence journalist program pumped out hundreds of stories covering the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

    In June 2017, a mainstream US' publication ran into controversy when its automated reporter, Quakebot — an automatic article-generating program that uses algorithms to turn email alerts from the US Geological Survey (USGS) into news stories — reported a non-existent magnitude 6.8 earthquake off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

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    Tags:
    robot reporters, fact-checking, bots, journalism, technology, media, news, Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR), UK Press Association, Google, Britain, United Kingdom
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