NiemanLab: Why Richland Source built a system for automating high school sports articles (and stopped selling apparel)

The following are excepts from a piece that appeared on Nieman Lab shortly after the launch of Lede Ai. Here’s a link to the full article, complete with screenshots and pull-quotes.

CHRISTINE SCHMIDT | @newsbyschmidt | May 6, 2019, 10:21 a.m. 

In the robots-are-coming-for-journalism world, it’s usually big news organizations like The Washington Post or The Associated Press experimenting with automating their articles. Now Richland Source, the six-year-old digital news outlet in Mansfield, Ohio, is stepping up to the plate.

With Abundat, an artificial intelligence company that shares its coworking space (that’s how they met), Richland Source is now automating articles from the results of Ohio high schools’ sporting events. The details are exactly what the parents and fans want, managing editor Larry Phillips said.

“This covers the nuts and bolts of what the reader expects from their local news outlet. This frees people up to do more involved journalism, more of things they got into the business to do,” he said.

Richland Source built Lede AI over the past year with Abundat’s help, though the news outlet fully owns the product and used Abundat as a contractor. The process wasn’t pretty — early on, all five of Richland Source’s full-time writers and some helpers spent a Friday night translating Scorestream game data from Lede AI’s early-days textfile output to articles in the site’s CMS, and Phillips’ staff wrote hundreds of scenarios — but the team got to a point where it’s now comfortable allowing Lede AI to publish late-night games while they sleep.

“We spent six to eight weeks where a human being sat and edited every single piece before we felt comfortable that we could run this,” Jay Allred, Richland Source’s president, said.

Now, after completing a beta phase with seven other news organizations (which Richland Source declined to name) and over 20,000 articles published with zero inaccuracies, the team is trying to get other newsrooms onboard.

What do these articles actually look like? Often, just a headline, “Sports Desk” byline, a sentence, and a bunch of ads. (There’s no mention of the software or robo-writing on the articles themselves, but Allred and Phillips pointed to a featured article Richland Source published last week explaining Lede Ai.)

The Washington Post has already followed a similar path with automating high school football results using its AI Heliograf (as well as smaller election results and Olympics alerts), and the Associated Press has automatically-generated articles about minor league baseball results and MLB previews.

But Richland Source is trying to turn Lede AI into its own mini-version of the Post’s Arc Publishing, building out this software as a revenue source. That’s in addition to its ads and revamped membership program. (It sold off the local-pride Made in the 419 apparel business — “We liked where we lived and the community vibe that had but we discovered pretty quickly we weren’t effective retailers,” Allred said — and has put the popcorn bag partnerships on hold for now.)

Allred said the team has considered automating other kinds of stories, like real estate transfers or marriage and death certificates, but reverted to sports because of the existing relationship with Scorestream. Sports stories are more likely to get search traffic, too — last night’s high school football game probably has a higher chance of being Googled than, well, that person from church you haven’t seen in a while.

“We know we built a tool we needed,” Allred said. “Once we figured out the tool worked, we thought maybe another local newsroom might like this tool, too.”

“Let’s make something that creates opportunity for newsrooms and small local companies to dominate a market,” Allred said.

And from the editorial perspective: “It gives us the superpower element that we can cover the entire state. If a reader is looking for a football score, Richland Source is going to be there first and accurately,” Phillips said.

The team might try those other topic areas at some point. First, though, Allred and Abundat’s founder Evan Ryan are working on a way for Lede AI to flag trends across the high schools that one of Phillip’s sportswriters could then pick up and write an analysis on. (“We don’t have an analytics department. You’re talking to the analytics department,” Allred said.)

In the years since we last wrote about it, Richland Source has expanded to two more counties, and is trying to boost its membership bases to cover the two new reporters. The reader revenue quest has reshaped the for-profit site’s approach, with Hearken-driven stories and a smoother process to actually give the site your money. (Richland Source also recently participated in Facebook’s membership accelerator for local news sites.) The organization also introduced human-curated-and-written newsletters and events for members. So far, membership has doubled in the past 90 days and is on track to double again in the coming 90, Allred said.

“We know we built a tool we needed,” Allred said. “Once we figured out the tool worked, we thought maybe another local newsroom might like this tool, too.”