Print editions grasp the AI 'newspaper button' opportunity

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Time and labour-saving tech has a track record in expanding markets rather than putting people out of work.

So Luddites not withstanding, it will be interesting to see what will follow from AI-assisted software that makes producing a newspaper as easy as a website, coming as it does in the "twilight years" of print newspapers.

There's certainly something beguiling about watching artificial intelligence work through the many options for the modular layout of a single story, the many options for the placing of that module in a page layout, and of making an edition from those pages.

And that is exactly what the commercialised outcome of development between Canadian national daily the Globe & Mail's Sophi.io tech division and editorial systems developer Naviga Global is achieving.

Let's hope that the outcome is - as it well could be - more local and hyperlocal print editions, rather than merely the centralised "print factory" production of hundreds of pre-existing newspapers, albeit giving journalists more time to focus on digital platforms and subscription growth. Though either option would be worthwhile.

Most western nations have seen the demise of print newspapers in recent years, but if there's been one lesson from the closure in Australia of more than 100 News Corp print editions, it's been that there is still demand for printed local newspapers and the advertising to support them.

The question is how to produce them economically, and make the process as cool and sexy as posting a story on a web or mobile news platform.

With the Sophi/Naviga iteration, there is what Agderposten technology director Bjorn Robert Knudsen calls a "make me a newspaper" button.

It's not the first such product - I recall writing about a UK-developed auto-layout app perhaps five years ago - but as you would expect, this one is faster and more flexible.

Knudsen's Norwegian regional paper had exactly that ambition when it signed up for a new CMS last year, and started using the Smart Layout product "for a few pages" in June. By last month it was laying out half of the daily paper's pages using the technology, "70 per cent on a good day," he says.

Now, while refining the process, they're hungry to do more with it, including other smaller titles within the group, while a smaller Scandinavian publisher, Gota Media is working with a less-automated version still with fast "elastic" layout.

Both work with Adobe's InDesign and create as an end-product PDFs ready for print production. An XML file for e-papers is also a possibility.

At Agderposten, stories have been produced and assembled for digital using a tool called Digital Writer, with photos and other components added. For print there may be editorial changes to headlines, the number of photos and text elements, and each story or 'story candidate' is given a category and priority.

"Then we push the 'print button," Knudsen says. "It all goes on behind the scenes, and in five to ten minutes, the pages are ready and we have three options.

"If the pages are good, and everything is in place, they are automatically inserted into the ordinary workflow, and sent to print. If we need to change something, we have all the InDesign files and can make the change through a plug-in. There is no 'point of no return', and if needed we can freeze the good and re-run the rest, or re-run whole. There's full editorial control."

Knudsen says Agderposten "will not disregard the importance of print for the moment", saying that it is important for revenue, and was insistent that print editions should retain their familiar look.

In a webinar on Australian time today, Naviga brought Knudsen, Gota's Peter Sigfridsson, Sophi vice president Gordon Edall, and its own development vice president Pat Stewart together to provide a glimpse "under the bonnet".

Stewart says components in the commercialised version include a digital dashboard, where stories are organised and prioritised, and three "behind the scenes" functions, Sophi.io's Blueprint builder - which mimics a publisher's unique practices - plus Block Builder and Page Builder which run in Adobe InDesign Server to apply typographic styles and render blueprints into full PDFs or InDesign files. "It all happens behind the scenes," he says.

In effect, Block Builder measures each element, builds a shape that every piece of content can take, and then tries to build a newspaper based on the shapes. "It could build two million different papers, but scores them against your unique rules," says Stewart.

Edall, who is vice president for Sophi at the Globe & Mail, said "a lot of time" had been spent preparing for "what we really think is the future", and on using AI "to help in the newsroom and support great journalism".

Having created a robust suite - also capable of curating social media, and managing paywalls - they have responded with the Naviga partnership to queries from other publishers interested in using it.

"Unusually, it's a story that begins in digital and ends in print," he says. "Sophi makes decisions that look and feel like newsroom decisions, only they're better, and all the time, no reader has ever made contact to complain."

A simpler system, Naviga's Templates, is in use at Gota Media to deliver flexible "elastic" templates on a semi-automatic basis, and will even work with an InDesign client, with pages then finessed to shape headlines and detail.

Above all, it's a start along the automation road.

Knudsen says the "most important truth" at Agderposten was that "you cannot see the difference" between pages produced under manual control and those produced using AI, "but editors have to trust automation, and that takes time".

Stewart admits it's not perfect - "not for your A1 pages, but for a lot of others you can be proud of, and to look like your best people built it".

That will be good enough for most people. As with the introduction of technology such as automatic density control in pressrooms, it may take time to build trust and acceptance.

Importantly, however such technology presents an opportunity to continue delivering print to a market that wants it, whether on the massive scale of the Indian news industry, or through relevant, profitable, hyperlocal editions nearer home.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Pages build 'behind the scenes'; (top) Agderposten's offices in Arendal, Norway

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