A victory. Actually, it was a great victory for Syllabs. For the past three years, we have been campaigning to offer the services of our robot writers to the French media and at last we have succeeded. And this success was with what has been dubbed “the benchmark daily”, though it can be argued that Le Monde is perhaps becoming the “benchmark digital medium”. We are both proud and honoured.
It has to be said that to achieve this, we haven’t spared our efforts or our teams! Between innovation meetings with decision makers in the media and collaborative projects with digital journalists involved in several hackathons, we have learned how to work with the media and understand its policies, its needs and its perspectives.
Syllabs was co-founded by a linguist and a programmer specifically to make a difference – an editorial difference. And when putting semantic technology to work for content editors, whether it be to collect, filter or produce text from a database, we have always thought that it should be possible (if not necessary) to transform the way in which the text (descriptions), and even the information, is produced.
With Le Monde, this is exactly what happened: our years of R&D enabled us to suggest to their editorial offices that they “experiment with new tools that could potentially offer a new service to readers”, as can be read in the Making of blog article (in French) by Luc Bronner, Deputy Managing Editor of Le Monde. For this, we appreciate greatly the trust that Le Monde placed in us as we helped them cover the departmental elections in a new way.
What exactly did we do with our robot writers?
For both rounds of the departmental elections, we created local articles for 34,000 municipalities and 2,000 cantons, which would have been impossible to do manually. Before the elections, our robot writers had firstly created small articles to present key information about each municipality from Open Data from the INSEE (French National Institute for Statistic and Economics Studies) and from the Ministry of the Interior. We then set up our organisational structure of one robot writer for the first round of the elections and a second for the second round. These robot writers presented the results by municipality and by canton as each result arrived in throughout election night.
In order to do this, our team carefully taught the robot writers how to present the election results in a way that respected both the paper’s style and editorial line, while at the same time enabling them to differentiate the scenarios to be described in each canton, in accordance with Le Monde’s analysis (i.e. second ballots, three-cornered fights, withdrawals, etc.).
Text example (French): Election results for the Saint-Amour canton (second round)
What do the media have to gain from this?
Let’s read what Luc Bronner had the honesty to say about this to his readers:
“The journalists of Le Monde didn’t have the capacity to produce 30,000 articles for 30,000 municipalities in one night anyway. These texts do not make claims to be political analyses (as compared with the 98 election commentaries on the department-level results, written by our political correspondents before Monday morning) or news reports.
Given that in a democracy there are no “small elections”, Le Monde mobilised 70 journalists to cover the departmental elections, of which about 20 special envoys were sent all over the country. And the information provided is formal, verified and confirmed: these teams are indeed human”.
Editorial offices, today, are a place of interaction between men, women and algorithms. Working hand-in-hand are editors who know what they want and robot writers that bring their contribution by broadening the global offer and customising information (to each canton its own description).
As regards the contribution in terms of search engine optimization (SEO), the figures from OJD speak for themselves. OJD (Circulation Audit Office) is an organisation that provides media audience measurement figures in France. On 31st March 2015, the organisation published a study of media audience for the departmental elections which shows Le Monde topping the hits list for the departmental elections, ahead of France TV and far ahead of Le Figaro. We’ve shown the table for the second round below:
Comparison of media audiences during the 2nd round of the departmental elections according to OJD.
In fact, this is only a first step. We launched our agency of robot writers, data2content, specifically to continue to give a voice to all of this data that is produced, every day, by our environment. And this is merely the beginning of what can be thought up and put in place: whether it’s to get closer to real time or to bring added value to archives and data, we are already working on new projects that strengthen the working relationship between writers and robots. All at the service of readers who, need we remind you, are already used to reading, sharing and informing themselves within multitudes of algorithms (without always being aware of it).