Pittsburgh News Organization To Test New Platform That Uses AI To Select Content

Feb 21, 2020

Trib Total Media is partnering with Pittsburgh artificial intelligence company Crivella Technologies to launch a new web platform for community newspapers. 

The website MeSearch will present Trib news to readers alongside user-generated content, sponsored content and advertisements.

Content will be recommended to MeSearch users based on what they've already read, according to Crivella Technologies president and CEO Arthur Crivella. 

"In essence, this newspaper is customized around your reading, around the things you're interested in," Crivella said. "We're trying to make the most relevant, personalized newspaper experience that anybody can get."

To avoid creating an echo chamber of similar news for readers, Crivella said the AI will recommend posts that are ideologically and emotionally different from the previous piece of content. The artificial intelligence gauges emotion, according to Crivella, by analyzing the words within pieces. If a person reads a disparaging article about a football quarterback, for example, MeSearch will recommend a positive article about football to read next.

Crivella said the major incentive for publications to join the MeSearch platorm is a promise of increased ad revenue. With the platform tailoring content for the individual reader, the hope is it can do that with ads as well.

"We're able to create an environment that gives people what they want, instead of wandering through what they're not interested in," Crivella said. "You can predict what's the best advertising that's appropriate for that reader."

Commercial news organizations have seen drastic changes over the past few decades. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom revenues across the U.S. dopped 62 percent between 2008 and 2018, and newsroom employment has dropped by 25 percent, largely due to layoffs.

In 2016, Trib Total Media ceased print operations for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and laid off more than 100 employees.

MeSearch also gives users the ability submit their own self-written stories. Crivella said he envisions this as a way for people to alert others about public safety issues and other hyperlocal concerns.

"Across the country, there are many places that don't have newspapers anymore," Crivelli said. "We've reduced the costs of creating, managing and supporting a publication so that local communities who aren't served with a newspaper can have a newspaper ... It allows every reader to be a publisher."

Joe Lawrence, general counsel at Trib Total Media and now CEO of MeSearch, said user-generated content is uploaded immediately to the platform. Trib editors review content after it is up, and can take it down if it's deemed innapropriate. 

Content that contains factual inaccuracies is not required to be taken down; that decision is left up to individual editors, said Lawrence.

"We're trying to give the publishers the opportunity to develop their internal policies on when it is they decide to take things down versus when they want to let them up," Lawrence said. "That's an ongoing process within the newsroom."

The Sewickley Herald has accepted user-generated content for about one year; so far none of it has been removed.

John Pavlik, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said there's value in getting the public to participate in the journalistic discourse of their communities, but he has reservations about the system.

"It's interesting and important to get public involvement, but to do so without first having thorough fact checking could wind up in a really troublesome area," Pavlik said. "It could definitely hurt the reputation of the news organization if it becomes a platform known for publishing inaccuracies or falsehoods."

Andrew Conte, director of Point Park Unviersity's Center for Media Innovation and a former Trib journalist, said he finds it encouraging that the publication is willing to experiment.

"Nobody has figured out the silver bullet for how media companies can make money on the internet yet," Conte said. "I do appreciate that the Trib is trying to push that envelope and trying to figure out new things. They're not just sitting back and saying, well, we're going to do what we've always done."

MeSearch's AI will start rolling out on Trib Total Media's weekly community paper websites, including the Sewickley Herald, Shaler Journal and Fox Chapel Journal this month.