Has journalism finally found its big tech ally? Inside Microsoft's pitch to publishers

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.

Microsoft News' Rob Bennett presenting to publishers / Pic: Microsoft News/Oli Hillyer-Riley

While Facebook and Google are habitually denounced for their impact on the news industry, and Apple is regarded by publishers with suspicion, Microsoft is setting out its stall to be the good guy in big tech who can make journalism better.

On Wednesday in London, it made its case to an invitation-only audience of UK and European publishers, unveiling details of how its AI technology is being developed with the aim of transforming the practices of journalism for the modern age.

Its innovations are designed to speed up investigative reporting by allowing vast datasets to be combed in seconds; video interviews can be given instant and searchable text transcripts in one of 40 languages; and reporters can have their voices mimicked by AI so that their articles can be consumed in audio formats, which are growing fast in popularity. At least, that’s the plan.

What makes these developments more intriguing is that Microsoft can already boast of being the number one worldwide news service on multi-platform and desktop (Comscore, November 2019). Microsoft News reaches 500 million monthly users of the articles it curates across its various platforms; from the MSN homepage to its Microsoft Edge browser, to its apps and the news feeds it provides for Amazon’s Kindle Fire and various mobile partners.

Its news service is produced in 60 editions and in 31 languages across 180 countries by a team of 800 editors in 50 locations, from Microsoft’s headquarters in Washington state to its operation in Paddington, west London.

But it doesn’t write its own stories. Microsoft’s vast audience is reading the material produced by 1,200 publishers and 4,500 news brands who send it 170,000 pieces of content every day. Its partners in the UK include the BBC, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Telegraph and The Sun.

Microsoft’s stated intent is to be not merely a destination for news but also a crucial collaborator in the news-gathering process. It desires that its properties – from Azure and its AI-driven Insight and Discovery Accelerator (IDA) programme, to familiar packages like Outlook, Excel and Offce – comprise the ubiquitous infrastructure systems of newsrooms worldwide.

Its pitch to publishers took place on Wednesday in a meeting space above its new flagship store overlooking Oxford Circus. On the ground floor, customers shopped for Surface computers and Xbox consoles alongside a giant Minecraft figure and to the sound of an in-store DJ. Up on the second floor, Ben Rudolph, the global chief technology officer of Microsoft News Labs, was painting a picture of journalism’s AI-driven future. “Technology can augment journalism,” promised his slide.

The IDA programme, being built within Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service, was created with “$1m of dev time”, he said. It was inspired by the discovery that, even in 2018, one large US news outlet searched a PDF of 30,000 emails by printing 90,000 pages and sharing them among an army of reporters with highlighter pens. IDA can search datasets from PDFs and emails to photos and digitised magazine clippings. “You have got this ability now to start looking across massive swathes of data,” he told the audience of news professionals. “We are working with publishers all over the world with IDA right now to help them speed and scale their reporting.”

Potentially, IDA’s machine learning and cognitive technology could help investigative journalists uncover stories that otherwise might have gone missing, and free up resources from time-heavy tasks sushi as transcription and translation.

Microsoft’s launch partner for IDA, The Atlantic magazine, put its 168-year-old archive on the system to allow it to search for historical context for current stories. It found that Mark Twain, once a writer for the magazine, was one of the earliest advocates of impeachment.

Rudolph also demonstrated IDA’s ‘Video Indexer’ tool which allows journalists to search films for faces and words. “It gives you this map of everything that’s happening across all of your videos.” Transcripts of everything said in the video are produced in real time. Individuals in the video can also be picked out, using facial recognition, each time they appear. “What I don’t mean is we are mapping against some kind of Facebook database,” says Rudolph (IDA’s visual database is restricted to 1 million individuals of high public profile).

This reference to another tech giant and trust seems significant.

In an interview with The Drum after the presentation, Rob Bennett, editor-in-chief and general manager of global content operations for Microsoft News, says that it is the “longevity” of the organisation’s relationship with the news sector that underpins the trust it now enjoys.

“We view our role at Microsoft as being able to contribute our scale, our resources, our technology, to partner with the news industry and help create a sustainable, vibrant ecosystem of distribution, content creation, content curation and really help everyone play to their strengths in that ecosystem,” he says.

“The longevity we have in working with publishers, news outlets and content creators, is a huge asset. We have relationships with thousands of companies that all share the same vision of building a trusted vibrant ecosystem of news outlets and a massive audience of readers around the world.”

Microsoft, as he points out, has been in the news business for 25 years – since before Google and Facebook were even a thing. But its activities in this space have sometimes faltered. I visited previous incarnations of the Microsoft news operation, where journalists were employed in generating original material as the tech giant sought to challenge traditional media, particularly in key verticals, such as gadgets, cars and music.

Bennett, a Microsoft veteran of 16 years, says that “technology has clearly disrupted the news industry both in positive and negative ways” but argues that MSN was never really regarded by the publishing industry “as a threat or competitor in real storytelling or content creation”.

That realisation was acted on five years ago when Microsoft “shifted our model” to become a partner of publishers rather than a source of original content. “We took that site and turned it into a platform that delivers news content from the world’s best journalists,” he says of the pivot.

Microsoft determined to focus on its “strengths in audience and technology”, Bennett says. Its audience has traditionally been on desktop but it has grown its reach on mobile by partnering with Orange and other mobile operators “that already have devices in people’s hands”. As a result, “worldwide Microsoft News is the number one news service across all platforms,” he says. “We are not in it for the ranking but it was great validation.”

Why is Microsoft interested in news? Bennett gives two reasons. One is high-minded. “We think that there is a societal need for a well-funded free press. We made our commitment a couple of years ago to defending democracy and we really started to lean in on understanding how safeguarding quality journalism plays a role in defending the democratic process. We feel there is a duty to inform the users of our products and services with high-quality content.”

Bennett points out that Microsoft president Brad Smith cited the safeguarding of journalism as one of his three primary challenges for the technology industry in the coming decade. The Microsoft News chief says that just as AI can produce threats to journalism, such as ‘deep fake’ videos, so also “we can use AI to detect those videos and verify the original source”.

As well as safeguarding the “integrity of news”, Microsoft wants to use technology to protect individual journalists working in the field, particularly war correspondents. It is working with the Clooney Foundation for Justice to identify particular needs. Rudolph, who oversees a team of seven at the 18-month-old News Labs but is typically drawing on “a swat team” of 30-50 engineers for each project, talks of the possibilities of encrypted communications tools and fitting micro-controller devices in the boots of reporters so editors “know exactly where they are walking and how quickly they are moving”.

Bennett’s other explanation for Microsoft’s desire to succeed in news is more obviously rooted in its business strategy: it has become “table stakes” essential for the platforms it serves. “When the browser came out you couldn’t imagine buying a PC that didn’t have an internet browser, now I think we are at the spot where you couldn’t imagine buying a phone that didn’t have news integrated in one swipe away from the home screen.”

Microsoft News continues to grow. It recently launched editions in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and in three new Indian languages. The already huge reach is a draw for advertisers. Since 2014, it has distributed $900m of ad revenues (the “majority” of the money received) to publishing partners. Bennett sees this as evidence of Microsoft’s commitment to supporting the business model for news. “We all know has been challenged and we think we have been delivering over the past five years a sustainable revenue stream for the publishers that we have worked with.”

Rudolph puts the mission more succinctly. “We want to be able to help journalists.” Newsrooms have heard similar claims from the tech sector before – but this seems a collaboration that publishers have appetite for.

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

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.