An AI-driven online news site? Observer+ taps automation to serve up fast food news

An AI-driven online news site? Observer+ taps automation to serve up fast food news

The public face fronting the relatively new website is SMRT Feedback co-founder Azly J. Nor, but the true identities of the “Council” behind the site remain a mystery. This profile of Observer+ is part of a series looking at Singapore's alternative media.

Observer news 01
Photo illustration of a man viewing the Observer+ website. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: This February, a milestone moment was achieved in the artificial intelligence (AI) space: A United States-based research organisation called OpenAI demonstrated its machine learning algorithm that’s able to generate its own text. 

The algorithm works so well that the researchers behind the project felt it necessary to withhold the full model and the dataset of eight million Web pages they used to train it with. 

One Vox writer even started the article detailing OpenAI’s achievements with: “One of the coolest AI systems I’ve ever seen may also be the one that will kick me out of my job.”

These innovations are not happening in just the US. 

INSTANT NEWS, JUST ADD AI

Locally, a new media upstart, Observer+, is looking to use AI to pick out the key news of the day, its most salient points and re-package coverage according to what the online crowd wants and is talking about.

Observer+’s Sarah Tang told CNA in an email interview that it has about eight AI bots tasked with “scraping” news from multiple sources. Their primary use is for the detection of certain keywords mentioned in social accounts, forums, news sites, essentially anywhere on the Internet. 

It also uses a sentiment tool to extract and analyse Facebook comments “specific to the lingua franca of Singapore and Malaysia", with an internally developed "Singlish/Manglish dictionary“ for this purpose, she revealed. 

Additionally, the AI tool can be used to extract a news article’s content, Web link and author’s name, among others, from the minute these are published, Tang said. The third-party articles are then passed through a “summarisation algorithm similar to Yahoo’s Summly” (a news summarisation app), after which “our ghostwriter will transpose the key points into a proper article”, she added.

Screengrab of Observer+
Screengrab of online news site Observer+, which is aided by eight AI bots and just a handful of freelance ghostwriters.

“The extraction and summarisation process takes 30 seconds. This means that within 1 minute of your article published on CNA, we will already know the key points and the gist of your article,” Tang said, adding there are about three freelance ghostwriters working for them.

She pointed out that the AI tool is still a work in progress and it is testing it against human writers. However, the intent is for the tool to help in detecting key news points rather than write an article independently.

LEAN AND MEAN

With the contribution of AI, Tang said this has helped the Singapore-based Observer+ to stay on the path of sustainability and tackle two main problems facing new publishers today: Funding and advertising. These problems, she pointed out, caused competitors like The Middle Ground, Six-Six News and Inconvenient Questions to fold. 

Currently, it costs less than S$2,000 to run the site in total every month, and this includes the Web servers and manpower, she said. “Costs are negligible due to AI and we currently have a monthly surplus.” 

Azly J. Nor, the person Tang reports to, said in a separate email: “Where sites like The Middle Ground and Six-Six News got it wrong is that they build the platform as a business, despite not getting market validation. Observer+, however, started with a focus on building influence - that’s where the core difference is.”

He said the media start-up does not have manpower difficulties because of AI, and in terms of funding, it does not have to pay for marketing or server costs. The marketing is provided by SMRT Feedback, an online satire and vigilante presence, “as a barter” in exchange for coverage on the latter’s tip-offs. 

One example of this barter trade was when Observer+ ran a story on Jun 14, 2017, of pictures SMRT Feedback had dug up of Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, the first woman detained for radicalism in Singapore, he pointed out. 

Tang also said it differentiates itself from others in the market with the ability to provide readers with a fresher angle than the same content already covered by others. 

For instance, when the Straits Times reported recently that 15 per cent of Singaporeans polled by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) find Muslims threatening and others followed along the same lines, Observer+ went a different route by reporting that 40 per cent from the same poll believed in magical powers, she said. 

READ: Almost a quarter of Singaporeans would allow religious extremists to post views online, says IPS report

“(It) is not about reporting B when others are reporting A for the sake of being different,” she added. “You can have many players providing diverse views across a myriad of topics, but that does not mean the readers are all more informed. (We) strive to report from the left, centre and right, and readers decide which positions they want to take.”

This approach appears to be working in its favour. 

Tang said in its first month of operations last December, it reached 1.7 million page views and this has grown to 1.9 million in March this year. In terms of reader base, she said it is 70 per cent Singapore-based traffic and 20 per cent from Malaysia.

WHO IS BEHIND OBSERVER+?

Yet, Azly said the news site remains a “pet project”. It’s not modelled as a business and it doesn’t actively seek sponsors, he added.

In fact, while Observer+ is based in Singapore, it has yet to be formalised as a corporate entity and it sees no need to do so now or in the near future, Tang (who declined to provide a picture as she was a formerly an administrator for SMRT Feedback) added.

So who owns the news site? It belongs to an unknown entity called the “Council”, which was also behind the online troll and vigilante site SMRT Feedback that shot into public prominence in 2011, she said.

According to its organisation chart, the Council consists of four sub-branches and members know only each other within their own sub-branch and not the others. So, those in the Advisory Committee would not know who is in the Gatekeepers, and vice versa, Tang said.

Organisation chart for the "Council" behind Observer+
The organisation chart of the "Council" and the entities it has ties with. (Chart: Observer+)

Azly, who publicly revealed his identity as co-founder of SMRT Feedback in 2015, is the “Consigliere” linking the Council to its other assets like Observer+, and his is an important role, said Tang, whose designation is Special Projects lead. 


His decision to “out” himself was not a personal one but on the request of the Council, she said. “He could have disappeared in 2012 and nobody would have known he was from SMRT Feedback, but we needed at least a public face because it was easier for business.” 

For instance, before Observer+ was launched, there was a need for someone to go out and network with existing publishers to understand how they work. According to her, Azly has helped Mothership boost their views with SMRT Feedback when the former first started, and also partnered others like The Smart Local, Vulcan Post and MustShareNews. 

This work probably paved the way for the current partnership between SMRT Feedback and Observer+.

“SMRT Feedback needed a media arm for tip-offs to continue their CSI work, without having to run and operate the asset, while the Council needed a media arm to promote their business interests so they can generate revenue and then use the money to fund their research,” she explained.  

His appointment is also a “failsafe”, said Tang. 

In terms of working within the parameters of the law, Azly’s marketing technology firm Blackwilder is the public-facing entity but it is part of a registered entity under Rockefeller Pte Ltd, which he owns. 

Should Observer+ hit the threshold needed for it to be licensed under the Broadcasting Act one day, similar to what was required of Yahoo or Mothership, this arrangement helps too.

“We have already planned for it. This comes back to the reason why we needed a public face,” Tang said. “When the time comes, Observer+ will go under the ownership of Rockefeller and will be operated within that Singapore entity.

“As Rockefeller already has its own P&L (profit and loss statement), any funds for (the) operation will come from them. We don't accept foreign funding (nor) will there be a need to seek local funding,” she added. 

Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify the business status and relationship between Blackwilder and Rockefeller, following an earlier miscommunication from Observer+.

Additional reporting by Fann Sim. 

This profile on Observer+ is part of a wider series looking at Singapore's alternative online news scene. You can read more about the industry here, or the other profiles on Critical Spectator and Rice Media

Source: CNA/kk

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