“Our printing story is over. After 400 years, we switched off our presses in October,” said Thomas Schultz-Homberg, CEO of Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien, the media brand for the family-owned DuMont group. Production of three newspapers has moved to a third-party printer, and the Cologne regional player is now staking its future firmly on AI and Technology.
“This business is under fire, totally under fire and the figures you see below, you won’t see next year. We are moving towards being a digital tech company with journalistic content. But the business model and the newsrooms have to change fundamentally. Nothing will be the same as it is today,” Schultz-Homberg told WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia conference in October.
The family-owned business dates back to 1620 when a printing plant was set up to produce prayer books and celebration papers. Over four centuries it grew to own three newspapers, seven radio stations, almost 1,000 employees, and an annual circulation of 247 million copies. The printed papers are now being produced by a third party as the strategic focus has shifted to tech solutions and growing the 45 million monthly visits to its websites.
“Without technology, there is no future for newsrooms. There won’t be any newsroom left if we don’t do technology. And if as publishers, we don’t do technology, others will do it for us,” said Shultz-Homberg.
Ditching human curation boosted visibility by 80%
The news outlet uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) and AI extensively in the newsroom to understand and curate texts and advertising on its websites. Topic pages and the taxonomy for advertising are totally automated.
“Instead of using hand-picked and manually curated links, historic and contextual links are all selected by machine. No humans are involved. An AI/NLP-based technology searches for stories that might fit the topic of the article. It presents text links,” he said.
Since automating this process, there has been “a huge increase in visibility of articles.”
AI applications recommend and personalise stories and sections for the individual reader – nobody sees the same.
“Thanks to AI we have millions of dynamic profiles, which we match to users,” said Schultz-Homberg.
During a trial period of AB testing, human selections were analysed against those made by machine.
Automated curations had click-through rates that were 80% higher than when editors made the selection, proof “that the machine knows better what the individual wants to read next.” Schultz-Homberg said this does not mean the editor is replaceable by a machine – because somebody has to produce the journalism.
Editors accept ‘machine knows best’
The results from machine selections, and their ability to get people to read deeply, going beyond headlines and teasers, convinced his editors.
“We no longer have the discussion of whether the machine knows better or the human. Now nearly our entire website is curated by machines,” he said.
Website visitors are served a unique, personalised version of the website – fulfilling a belief that “tech should promote and foster the journalism that people want to read, not the journalism that editors think they should read.”
At Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien, editors are the content creators, feeding a content hub. The machines deliver curated content to individuals who are now reading more often and deeper. They are also seeing more ads – good for the business and its journalism.
Meet Klara, the robot content creator
The group has also introduced an artificial AI colleague/editor, “Klara,” who is responsible for writing 6% of the articles written on the platform EXPRESS.de and driving 5.2% of total article hits.
Klara takes writing orders from the editorial team. She also will detect topics that should be on the page but are not, by scanning trending topics in the group’s news channels that serve the Cologne area. If there is no article, she starts to write one.
Schultz-Homberg is imagining what 10 Klara’s would do for traffic and relevance.
“Klara makes mistakes, of course, but fewer and fewer each day. In the first few days, we used Klara with a companion editor who watched every word she wrote. And he detected some errors of course. Now Klara operates on her own, and the companion editor cross-checks to see if everything is accurate, and then publishes.”
Above is a map to show where Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien can, and where it does, use AI.
Some of the applications are experimental, some are directly business-related. All the figures are rising.
“We don’t have any AI model in the newsroom that has produced worse figures than before we introduced AI, and it’s getting better because AI is improving day by day. So don’t be afraid of AI – embrace it,” he said.
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