Twenty-seven journalists employed by PA Media are losing their jobs as Microsoft abruptly ended its contract with the news agency after 18 months.
The journalists work on the Microsoft News website (msn.com), its app and the homepage that appears when someone opens the Microsoft Edge browser in the UK.
They curate content from other news organisations by deciding which to stories to highlight, writing headlines, choosing pictures and prioritising their placement on the page based on analytics. The stories are clicked on millions of times each day.
The journalists were told on Thursday that their roles were being lost because Microsoft had decided to end the contract in favour of using full automation to update and manage its websites around the world.
A PA spokesperson said: “We are in the process of winding down the Microsoft team working at PA, and we are doing everything we can to support the individuals concerned.
“We are proud of the work we have done with Microsoft and know we delivered a high-quality service.”
PA took over editing the Microsoft news website on 1 October 2018 after the tech company rebranded and expanded its MSN news service. It shares the revenue from the content it hosts with publishers.
One of the journalists affected, who asked to remain anonymous, told Press Gazette the decision came suddenly as Microsoft wanted to roll out the new system in time for its new financial year, which begins on 1 July.
“It was quite a shock really… my job’s been replaced by a robot. It doesn’t feel good,” they said.
Staff were told by PA editor-in-chief Pete Clifton that in normal times he would like to redeploy as many of the journalists as possible in other roles, but that this was not currently an option because of the pandemic.
PA Media Group was forced to put about a quarter of its staff on furlough or ask them to take unpaid leave. Thirty-nine sports journalists and five racing journalists went on furlough in March as part of the action to “mitigate the financial impact of Covid-19”.
The team had already been trialling AI on some of their lesser-read sections, including property and cars, and the journalist told Press Gazette this was “not that great” so far and sometimes chose stories that were inappropriate for the section.
“So I don’t know how it’s going to pick up a hard section like just news where there are really controversial images and stories the Daily Mail or the Mirror might publish more freely, for example, that we had to avoid,” they said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a smooth transition at all. One example we always get hammered home is that we can’t use pictures of terrorists or pictures of crime scenes or any graphic image really at all because we aren’t a normal news website, we’re a browser, so a five-year-old could open up Microsoft Edge and those images could appear on the website, or someone opening Microsoft Edge who doesn’t care about news might not want to see an unsettling image right in front of them.
“So we have quite strict editorial guidelines – much, much stricter than most media places for that reason and I don’t know how that’s going to be programmed in… None of us really have high hopes for the AI.”
A Microsoft spokesperson said: “Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis.
“This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, redeployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”