Olle Zachrison, Head of Digital News Strategy, Sveriges Radio
SR is Sweden’s national public broadcaster and leading audio company, with over 2,200 staff stationed in 50 locations around the country. Representing the whole population and covering under-reported areas and issues are central strategic ambitions as expressed in our vision: “More voices and more powerful stories for greater understanding.”
Giving prominence to journalism of great public service value is at the heart of a cross- functional project to create a news algorithm from scratch. The algorithm is powered by News Values – a system by which editors rate all audio news stories produced by SR each day. The pre-publication rating feeds the algorithm that in turn helps us automate and personalize the news experience for a wide and diverse audience.
Every day, SR newsrooms publish around 350 news clips in apps and on the website. The diversity is considerable, with news from 26 local channels from north to south, a large national newsroom, sports, science, culture and language services. For traditional radio, the various newsrooms make their editorial assessments for their own broadcasts, independently of each other.
However, digitally the most relevant news items from all newsrooms are gathered in the same news feed. A good example is Top News, our main news playlist in the app Sveriges Radio Play, which constantly updates the audience with the most important national, local and international news. To provide this service we need a common standard for news evaluation: which of all the news items are most important at any given moment?
News Values is the system where SR editors now evaluate news items as they have always done, albeit expressing it in a new way. In our digital publishing tool, each item is rated in three dimensions:
- How high is its general news value? Is it an extraordinary news event like a devastating forest fire or suspected terrorist act? Is it a standard news piece, which is certainly important but not of such obvious impact that it affects everyone?
- How long is the life span? Is it a news item that is relevant for a long time, such as a revealing investigation? Or is the life span short, like a traffic accident or a sports result?
- Does the news contain significant SR values? Here we have identified a set of distinctive public service qualities: are we out reporting on location? Are unique voices from affected people included in the story? Are we providing our own analysis of a difficult topic?
Values and technology
The third dimension is what really distinguishes SR’s system from similar solutions in other media houses, and the reason we call it our “public service algorithm”. Employees from all over the company have put great effort into identifying and formulating the core values that characterize strong SR publications. The link to the company’s mission is clear.
The fact that SR has integrated journalistic values of this type into a technical system is something that has attracted a great deal of attention in the international media industry. In the motivation for the EBU Technology & Innovation Award, Judy Parnall, Chair of the EBU Technical Committee, called the system “a perfect example of technical ingenuity being combined with public service values, helping Sveriges Radio to better fulfil its mission.”
SR is far from being the only European public service company that aims to offer its digital users a more personalized news feed. At the same time, every PSM organization wants to ensure that its news output is credible, factual and comprehensive, in line with the journalistic mission. For example, BBC News Labs has created Cupid, a prototype for editorial curation of a personalized news feed, where SR is cited as an important source of inspiration.
More time for content
So how can setting news values save time for stressed digital editors? When rated, each item gets a numeric score that then decides its place in the running order in news playlists and on sverigesradio.se. This editorial algorithm is now automating the total output from all of SR’s 33 newsrooms. This means that, instead of having to manually edit the news mix every time something new has occurred, editors can devote more time to enhancing the journalistic content.
The general news values and the freshness of the item carry the most weight in the algorithm. But a news clip that contains the special SR values – for example a unique testimony – is given a more prominent position and so is displayed to more listeners. It also helps our editors in the national newsroom to quickly discover the most important news from all of SR’s local stations.
The long internal project has been marked by the closest collaboration between tech and editorial in the history of SR. Two project managers, one from each side, led the effort shoulder to shoulder, which created an exceptionally strong backing
for the system in the whole company.
“Technically, what we have done is relatively straightforward really,” says Jörgen Bang, Product Owner. “Half jokingly, we say that the algorithm itself is understandable if you’ve studied basic maths in high school. But the central thing is that it changes how we work with news digitally and the jury seems to have understood that.”
The system of news values stimulates a discussion about how we do our journalism. It inspires positive change. Our evaluation of the project has shown something we are particularly proud of: that the new system encourages
reporters to get out of the office more often, which makes for more vivid audio storytelling on the reality of people’s lives. It also offers future opportunities for more sophisticated personalization, such as individually customized news playlists and newsletters.
For some, both outside and inside media companies, the word “algorithm” carries negative connotations, especially in relation to free speech and independent journalism. The term is associated with commercially driven tech products that run without human intervention to maximize clicks and profit.
That is why we stress that even though algorithms and advanced programming are important tools in digital journalism, the basis is always the human editor’s journalistic judgment.
We will never hand over our news presentation to a completely autonomous system nor personalize to such a degree that our listeners get completely different views of current affairs. SR has a mission to convey the most important news to everyone, and we are firm believers that smart tech can help us do our job better.
This article was first published in issue 49 of tech-i magazine.