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‘The Core Job of Journalists Isn’t Going Away’ – ALM’s New AI Content Tool Shows Human Plus Machine is the Way Forward

Last month, legal publisher ALM introduced Legal Radar, a “first-of-its-kind website and app” that uses artificial intelligence and natural language generation to offer faster and more personalized user experiences.

Legal Radar puts the reader in charge, allowing users to select the news they would like to see from a list of relevant industries, practice areas, law firms, companies, and geographic regions, then scrapes information from federal case database PACER to generate automated summaries (usually between 50-80 words) of key details about cases as well as pulling in original ALM content from other channels.

“The newsfeed is filled with short, easy-to-digest news briefs that are intended to be scanned, kind of like the experience you would have on a social media app like Twitter or a news app like Flipboard,” says Vanessa Blum,  head of newsroom innovation for ALM’s Global Newsroom. “It’s a very mobile friendly experience and responds to that habit we know our users have which is responding to short news snippets while they are on the go.”

Legal Radar represents a significant shift in the way that content is both generated and consumed. Connectiv spoke with Blum about the realities of building an AI-driven content product, how the customer content experience is changing in B2B media and what the rise of AI really means for editors and journalists.

Connectiv: Vanessa, how does the AI component of Legal Radar work?

Vanessa Blum: We start with a stream of raw data from the federal court system via PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). We apply some data processing on the back end in order to normalize, structure and clean up that data.  Then it’s converted into short summaries using natural language generation (NLG) technology from a platform called Automated Insights.

It goes in as structured data and it comes out as a readable summary. Then, as the final step, we have editors review the summary for accuracy and to make any edits that are necessary.

Connectiv: The release refers to a “first-of-a-kind website and app.” Can you talk more about what makes this first of a kind and how this offers a new customer experience?

Blum: I’ll talk about two things. First is that user experience. There’s never been a legal news product, certainly not a free legal news product, that is so easy to use on mobile, that can be personalized by user selection and is so seamless to digest information and respond to it. We think we nailed that UX in a way that hasn’t been done in legal media

The second part, which we are really excited about, is the way we are using technology and data processing to generate content for Legal Radar. It’s not the tech in itself, it’s that using technology allows us to be exponentially faster in delivering news to readers and also to deliver news across a wide array of topics and interest areas. I’m really excited about what the technology allows us to do, not only the tech in itself.

Connectiv: Talk about the interaction of the technology with editors. What’s this mean for an editor day-to-day?

Blum: I’ll start with the development process, and how closely our editors and developers worked together in building the back-end system. There are journalistic insights baked into every piece of the data processing engine—it’s the editors who devised how this data should be handled as well as the categories and the tagging that should be applied to it.

And then at the NLG level, these are templates that were created by editors to produce the kind of output that would be useful to readers. They account for over a dozen different fact patterns. It’s not a simple plug-and-play NLG engine, there is really this contribution of journalists and editors throughout the development of Legal Radar. Now that it’s up and running, we have editorial review of every item that’s created. We have staffing around the clock where an editor is looking over each and every item.

We thought that was necessary for two reasons—one is that the data set we are working with can be messy. We knew we needed something on the back end to protect against an error in the data producing an error in the content.

The other component is the ability of a human to enrich the content that we are putting out. These are very short, very fast-paced summaries but if something catches an editor’s interest, they will take an extra step—they will open a case, they will open a lawsuit and add a few key facts. We think it’s incredibly valuable to have the human judgment at the end of that process to resolve any questions or enrich what we are producing using the automated system.

Connectiv: A lot of publishers are taking a look at AI and trying to understand what they can do. As someone who’s successfully built an AI tool, what takeaways ca you share about working with AI and building and AI-driven product?

Blum: I have two main takeaways from this experience: first is to focus on the end user and not the tech. It’s easy to get enraptured by cool tech but the best practice is focus first on what you want to deliver and then focus on how the tool gets you to that result. In my role, learning about new tech and seeing how other companies are applying it is eye opening and can spark that creative process but it’s essential to stay user-focused.

The second thing is to build truly cross-functional teams. Creating Legal Radar required journalists, programmers, product designers and business strategists to all be around the table in a way that was really new for our organization. We tend to have content creators in one area and developers in another. For Legal Radar, content creation and technology are so intertwined that we had to break down the walls and get editors and programmers talking together to solve problems. Not only has that made our product better, it’s made our company better.

Connectiv: What was the biggest strategic takeaway from this experience?

Blum: Staying open minded. When we first started, we had a different data set in mind that we thought we’d be using to produce automated coverage. We learned early on that data set wasn’t workable for us, we had to pivot to something else.

One other thing that I’ll mention, we are working with Automated Insights and it’s a great product, but we found we had to build a lot of solutions at the front end before the data is fed into Automated Insights and at the back end before the content goes into the Legal Radar newsfeed. That’s not something we necessarily anticipated at the outset—how much thought and creativity we’d have to apply both to the data feed going into Automated Insights and how we would handle the content on the back-end.

Connectiv: As the head of newsroom innovation, what are you excited about with content and media? And conversely, what do you think is overrated?

Blum: I’m interested and excited in the combination of human and machine intelligence. I love watching how other news organizations are using technology, using algorithmic journalism, using AI and combining it with the expertise of their journalists to come up with solutions that are incredibly rich. That’s kind of the secret sauce in my view.

In terms of what I think is overhyped, I hate answering that because I’m sure I’ll be back talking about this a year from now, but I will say that smart speakers and developing news products for Alexa. I don’t get that one yet. I’m not convinced we’ll be receiving our information from smart speakers in the near future.

Connectiv: You’ve talked about journalists and AI working together. What’s your reaction to the idea of AI replacing editors and writers?

Blum: That’s the natural fear that people in our industry have as we begin learning about automated journalism. The more I’ve learned about it, the less that fear seems grounded. What technology is capable of is so different from what humans are capable of that it’s really through combining the two that we will see the most exciting advances. Technology is great at processing reams of data very fast, but in the business I’m in, which involves asking questions, exploring trends, talking to insiders, there’s no potential at this point that a machine will take over those functions.

When you combine the speed and data processing capabilities of the technology and turn that over to a human being to do the investigation and talk to real people, that’s where magic happens. I think journalist jobs will change–my own changed dramatically–and journalists will be forced to become more tech-savvy and be more open to using data processing in their work, but the core job of a journalist isn’t going away and cannot be replaced by a computer or an algorithm.

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Delegating and Hitting ‘Pause’ Can Both Provide More Valuable Time

A year ago, Fast Company posted an article titled How to Redesign Your Days to Give You Back a Few Extra Hours Every Week. The author listed five categories where we can make changes:

Quit Something
Limit Something
Pause Something
Delegate Something
Add Something

Contemplating these five areas is a good way to start the new year. Let’s take a closer look.

For Quit Something, they wrote “Quit a recurring meeting. Quit a committee. Quit Facebook. Quit Candy Crush.” Facebook and Asana (which was founded by a Facebook co-founder) both have a company-wide policy of no meetings on Wednesdays. You can also quit a poor habit or policy. Diversifying your speakers might be a good place to start. Take some extra time to do research to find new speakers for your next webinar, podcast or event. With those new speakers might just come a new audience. I visited an art exhibit yesterday titled The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today. And you can just see how the diverse content attracts—and engages—a diverse audience.

For Limit Something, how about email? Almost 85% percent of the people surveyed by Adobe Insights check their email before they get to work, and nearly a quarter take a look before they even get out of bed in the morning. People text or check personal email while watching TV (60%), talking on the phone (35%), working out (16%), and yes—I see it more every day—driving (14%). “Why is email so ingrained in our lives?” Kristin Naragon of Adobe Campaign asks. “One reason may be that it’s so manageable—we can sort, file, filter, and generally get things done.”

For the Pause Something, they wrote: “[Go] on a walk in the middle of the day. [Give] yourself permission to run an errand during your lunch break. Stopping for a moment to assert your ability to do the non-urgent reduces the sense that everything has to happen at a frenetic pace, and that there’s no time to slow down.” Writes prominent author and speaker Daniel Pink from his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing: “Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks—taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own.” A trip to the office kitchen—where there is always someone—stimulates my thought processes. Or, if you’re home, finding a community at the coffee shop.

Delegate Something might have the most potential of any category. I’m guilty of this myself. I run a couple local Meetup groups for the arts and volunteering here in the Washington, D.C. area. One is quite large and the other much smaller, so naturally I spend much of my free time on the larger one. A woman messaged me and said she noticed there isn’t much activity on the smaller one. Could she help?

My first reaction was, “Oh I have this plan for that group and I will implement it soon. So I will tell her that and say thanks.” And then I recalled that I was saying this six months ago and nothing has happened. I have continued to just pay attention to the bigger group and only think about what I want to do with the smaller one.

Someone was offering to help me, nothing was getting done, and I had to think about it? “As you plan your day, ask yourself: Is this something that I really need to do myself, or could someone else do this instead?” Fast Company wrote.

For Add Something, are you doing push alerts? “Push alerts show up in spaces where the interruption is hard to ignore: your phone’s locked screen while you’re trying to fall asleep, your smartwatch while you’re in a meeting, a popup while you’re answering an email,” writes Rachel Schallom, deputy editor for digital at Fortune Media, in NiemanLab’s excellent Our Predictions for Journalism 2020 series. “Long story short: If someone doesn’t want to receive a push alert, they’ll change their settings. An underrated metric in measuring an alert strategy’s success is simply the number of subscribers a push notification list has. Editors can also look at the lifecycle of an alert subscriber: How long do they stay subscribed? How often do they change their settings?”