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After 150 years of the news wire, the Press Association looks to voice-activated news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Press Association

As the Press Association prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, its gadget-collecting chief executive is playing with his latest toy.

“Alexa,” Clive Marshall barks at the small black tower on his desk, “can I have my flash briefing?”

The Amazon Echo speaker bursts into life and begins relaying headlines from the BBC World Service. PA was founded in the back of a Hansom cab amid the smog of Victorian London but a news agency must move with the times. When I visited Marshall in the same Victoria office in February 2011 he had his early-adopted Samsung Galaxy Tab and first-generation iPad proudly placed before him on the desk.

Marshall, just back from the Code Media technology conference in California, is convinced that voice recognition services “could be the next big opportunity” for news businesses, which make up PA’s core clientele. They need to be in a position to meet demand, and right now they are not.

“If I say to Alexa ‘What is on television this evening on BBC?’ it won’t be able to answer that question – yet we are providing virtually all the TV listings for the digital and hard copy publications that cover TV,” he complains. “So we need to explore with our customers whether to create facilities where content which is currently being produced to be read can actually be spoken by Alexa and equivalent devices like Apple and Google.”

PA's place in modern media

The PA is a pillar of the UK’s news industry. The publishers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Sun are among the biggest of its 26 shareholders and PA’s team of 300 journalists compile the stories that comprise the raw wire of content which heavily influences the daily news agenda.

But for all its ancient traditions it has had to make some significant changes to its business to remain profitable. Today it sells sports data to online betting companies and operates a growing network of high-end broadcast facilities in boardrooms and academic institutions around the world.

When I met Marshall in 2011, the PA was losing £750,000 from its core news operations and its profits were largely thanks to a specialist weather business, MeteoGroup, that had evolved from a data service for news organisations to one used by transport companies and other sectors affected by the elements. The current portfolio, shorn of MeteoGroup (sold for £160m in 2013), reported a turnover of £57.6m and profit of £2.1m in its 2015 accounts. “We have divested ourselves of the businesses that used to make our profit and we are now making a return out of the news business,” says Marshall.

PA’s growth represents an acknowledgement – among B2B clients at least – that news is a highly prized commodity. Corporate communications offices, trade associations and government bodies are among the customers paying for PA’s unspun and immediate output. The agency is about to launch a daily Brexit briefing and Marshall expects “huge demand” for a service that will “keep businesses and associations and industry bodies abreast of all of the key news elements”.

Amid all the accusations of fake news and bias that are being flung at this industry, PA can benefit from its age-old reputation for straight reporting. “There’s no better place to be than a news and information agency,” Marshall says.

Beyond news

Digital platforms bring new opportunities. The out-of-home advertising giant JC Decaux has partnered with PA to bring news content to its electronic platforms, notably during the Rio Olympics and European football championships.

PA, which has a total staff of 800, makes around half of its money from services outside of the core news agency. Especially lucrative has been the business in supplying horse-racing and other sports data to the fast-expanding online betting sector. Marshall believes such clients might soon be demanding voice-activated information “on the 3.30 from Sandown Park”.

Another revenue source has been Globelynx, a service that provides broadcast quality cameras to global clients (from big banks to universities) who are looking to put their experts or senior executives into the news media. Broadcasters (indeed any news outlet using video) can sign up for Globelynx to get fast access to experts for a price (around £40) intended to match the old world cost of hiring a taxi to bring a guest to and from the studio. PA has built a network of 110 of these cameras from Hong Kong to America, Marshall says. “You can have either the static camera set up in somebody’s offices so that when the CEO is in demand they can sit with the backdrop of their offices, or there is the portable camera which companies can move to a conference or exhibition.”

Marshall knows he must continually keep on top of changes in technology to meet potential customer demand. For a news agency, that increasingly means creating video content for consumption on mobiles, rather than the agency’s traditional output of news and pictures.

PA recently took a stake in the Israeli-based online video creation platform Wochit. It is a “strategic investment”, which can benefit both parties, says Marshall. “We can then give them an insight into our understanding of the news markets in our territories but also get their insights as they develop that platform and build out their offerings.”

The agency’s newsroom is making greater use of drone cameras and 360 filming, says Pete Clifton, the editor-in-chief. PA has bought six 360 cameras and deployed them in locations including the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. It used 360 filming in coverage of the non-league football club Sutton United on its recent big FA Cup day at home to Arsenal. “It helps to highlight PA’s innovation, and the only restriction currently is that 360 videos only work on Facebook, YouTube and some web players,” says Clifton. “We hope standard players will start to accept 360 over the next 12 months.”

The drone cameras have been deployed mostly on features material, including environmental stories on flooding and coastal erosion. “It has created quite a buzz, and we’ve started getting some excellent new access – we were able to send the drone up and get some amazing footage of the BBC filming the third series of Poldark on the Cornish coast.”

When Apple’s chief executive was in Glasgow recently to collect an honorary degree, a PA staff reporter used his (Samsung) phone to film the tech chief in the local Apple store and provided the video for the wire. This is the modern PA in action. A current challenge for the agency is to reform its content management system so that clients can receive text, pictures and video in the same feed, instead of serving news and picture desks separately, as the old model dictates.

A newswire for Facebook?

Facebook and Google are two clients which Marshall is surprised not to have acquired, in this era of concern over fake news. “My feeling would be that a great way for these platforms to validate whether the news is fake or not would be to have access to the news agency feeds, whether it is PA or Reuters or AP (Associated Press). But they have got to want to address the issue.”

He talks of the agency’s enduring values (“the integrity, the impartiality, the speed’) and reiterates that despite the diversity in PA’s portfolio, “we are a news and information business and the news agency is at the heart, that’s what everything resonates around”. With a hint of regret he says he expects the agency to take on more outsourcing of traditional newspaper roles of sub-editing, having recently taken a contract to do that for the Dublin-based Irish Independent.

But he can’t dwell on nostalgia. He is “completely agnostic” about the way that clients “capitalise on our content” and he is committed to examining new innovations.

Much as he is impressed by Alexa, his repeated mentioning of the name causes the device to keep interjecting. “Alexa stop! Alexa. Stop!” he is forced to say, as if addressing an over-friendly canine. “The trouble is that every time you use her word she starts again and tries to guess what you are asking. We will call her ‘the thing’ in future.”

It’s still early days for voice recognition in news but that won’t deter his interest in making PA content machine readable. “We need to be ready,” he says.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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