Why we replaced our human reporters with a robot… and our audience love it

Adam Walker, Multimedia and Interactive Designer for Reach Regionals, would like to introduce you to the newest reporter at WalesOnline, his name is Geraint and he’s a robot. Say hello Geraint…

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those articles about how robots are going to replace you. This is an article about how robots can help us meet the ever increasing demands on a journalist.

The latest job added to a WalesOnline journalist’s to-do list is to record a Flash Briefing for Amazon Alexa smart speaker devices. A Flash Briefing is a short audio news flash — it’s what Alexa plays when you ask ‘What’s in the news?’. With sales of Amazon Echos, Dots and Spots exploding, we wanted to get WalesOnline listed in the available news sources as soon as possible.

I wrote a simple upload page where reporters can drag an mp3 file of a news flash they’d recorded and the code would take care of uploading and updating so Alexa always had access to the latest briefing.

We submitted the Flash Briefing skill (skill is just what Amazon call their smart speaker apps), Amazon accepted it and we were live. Hardly anyone listened the first week but it did slowly start to attract an audience. There was one problem, the more people who listened, the more complaints we got. Those complaints broadly fitted into two categories; the quality of the audio files, and the reporters’ voices.

Here are some of the reviews we were getting…

Okay, they’re harsh, but we can learn a lot from negative reviews.

So let’s talk about the reporters first. These are highly-trained, highly-skilled individuals who know how to gather news and how to tell a story. They are reporters who excel at writing stories, presenting on Facebook Live or even chatting on podcasts but we were asking them for the impossible here. They had to write the two-minute flash briefing and then record it in a busy newsroom using their phone (that’s where the bad quality comes in) because it’s not worth breaking out the professional podcast recording equipment for a two-minute newsflash.

Also, this is one of those things that looks a lot easier than it is. Have you tried reading out a two-minute report without making one mistake while sounding appropriately enthusiastic for the story? It sounds super easy but it’s not, I tried and I can’t imagine how bad the reviews would have been if I’d published one of the reports. That’s why broadcast journalism is a skill set all of its own.

It was around this time we started to think about using a generated voice to read these news reports. The general view of these things is people prefer to listen to a human but we thought we’d give a robot a go. As luck would have it Amazon Polly, which is a text-to-speech (TTS) service, had just released a Welsh accent speech file called Geraint.

If you have an Amazon Web Services account you can access Amazon Polly. There’s a web page that you can convert plain text to speech, or you can use Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) which is like HTML but for speech so you can add things like pauses or breaths.

We started simple. I showed WalesOnline’s Head of Audience Chiara Rinaldi how to use the page and SSML and she manually produced the audio files every day.

People seemed to like Geraint, just look at this review…

But we did have the problem that when Chiara was off, nobody was able to produce the reports. Luckily, Amazon provide a simple API so it was just a matter of writing a little javascript and we had a web page where any reporter could type up the best stories of the day and download an mp3 file, all on a secure page with no need to add any fiddly SSML tags to anything.

We’ve got plans to improve the system we’ve written and the next move is to add support for Google Home devices. But we’re growing our audience all the time, our listeners are happier and we’ve even managed to take a little pressure off the reporters while still giving our audience daily audio reports.

I said at the start that this isn’t an article about robots replacing you. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. We’re using technology to make journalists’ lives easier while still putting them right at the centre of reporting the news. I think that’s how we have to think of a future where, in our increasingly demanding roles, we’ll be helped by an array of assistants. Natural language programming and neural network machine learning is not going to replace us, it’s going to help us be even better at our jobs. Imagine Amazon Polly taking care of the audio reports you have to produce, while a bot is scraping the web, sorting through and analysing data for a story you will write. Or even an engagement bot that can take care of your social media accounts and just alert you when something needs your attention.

Geraint is a simple reporter, he just says the words we give to him. But I think he does speak to a future where an army of digital assistants really will make our lives easier and will make us all better journalists.

Adding the WalesOnline Flash Briefing to your Alexa news report

Just go to the Alexa app on your phone and search for WalesOnline. You’ll find the WalesOnline News Briefing — tap the app and follow the instructions to keep up with all the news in Wales.