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Blue Ridge Public Radio

Using AI to Keep Communities Informed

Blue Ridge Public Radio turned to Pinpoint for AI-powered research support.

Covering local news gaps

Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Blue Ridge Public Radio (BPR) plays a critical role in providing news coverage for their community, which spans 14 counties and 650,000 people. To ensure listeners are up-to-date on information that will impact their lives, BPR reports on important topics such as local government activity, health and climate issues, and the region’s rapid growth and development.

When Laura Hackett, reporter at BPR, first started researching a delayed supportive housing remodeling project, she thought the story would be pretty straightforward. After all, construction delays happen all the time. But as she and her colleagues started to dig in, they discovered it would be more complex to report than they anticipated, with far more sources and documents than there are hours in the day.

To quickly search through the large volume of public records, emails, and text messages, Hackett and her news director, Laura Lee, turned to Pinpoint, Google’s AI-powered tool to help journalists organize and analyze collections of documents. With Pinpoint, they were able to quickly unlock insights to build their story and hold the developers accountable.

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“The ability to search a big set of documents is really helpful when you're a small team and you don't have time to cull through hours and hours of documents.” — Laura Lee, News Director, Blue Ridge Public Radio
Laura Lee
Blue Ridge Public Radio

Sifting through source material

As the team sifted through hundreds of court records and other documents, they used Pinpoint to quickly identify sources and connect the dots, saving the small newsroom invaluable reporting hours.

“You're culling through these documents and you might see somebody's name, and then a hundred documents later, you see that name again,” says Lee. “In the old world, you're flipping back through trying to figure out, did I highlight that name so that I could find that person again? With tools like [Pinpoint], you don't have to do that. You can just do a search.”

Through their research, the BPR team discovered tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid permitting fees and lawsuits that had been filed against the California developers, who had been brought on with a promise to quickly and efficiently renovate the motel.

“The challenges with unhoused people in Asheville are very real and very immediate,” says Lee. “To not see the parties meeting the deadlines, I think we had an obligation to ask why and to really be the mouthpiece for the public.”

“It's a way to leverage what AI can do to free up our time to do the things that only we can do.”
Laura Lee
Director, Blue Ridge Public Radio

Embracing AI-powered journalism

For small newsrooms like BPR, dedicating time to look beyond the obvious story isn’t a given.

“Under North Carolina law, the public owns all the records, and potentially the answers are all there, but someone has to dig through to find them,” says Lee. “In a lot of small newsrooms, they don't have the resources to do that kind of digging.”

Part of BPR’s success is their integration into the community, attending city council meetings and events and speaking with sources, helping to build relationships that strengthen their reporting and their connection with their audience.

“What is so critical about local journalism is building trust,” says Laura Lee, news director at BPR. “You have to build a relationship of trust with people in the community so that they are willing to be open with you, and that takes time. You can't do that overnight.”

Lee is always looking for ways to streamline tasks for her team. Using AI tools like Pinpoint can help expand the reporting power of small teams, making it possible to cover more stories more thoroughly, and to find the time to do the critical work of community engagement and source development.

“Democracy doesn't just exist in the White House or in Congress. It exists here in the city council meeting and the board of commissioners meetings,” says Lee. “If you have access to these tools, you can buy back your time to go out into communities, to meet with sources, to interact with human beings, and that's something that AI is not going to do. It's a way to leverage what AI can do to free up our time to do the things that only we can do.”

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