Seeing Automation As Opportunity, Not The End

As if journalists needed anything more to worry about, robots look poised to begin a gradual takeover of basic newswriting tasks.

The discussion surrounding robot, or automated, journalism has fired up this summer, following The Associated Press’ (AP) announcement that the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories will go automated, thought-provoking pieces by Nieman Lab and the Guardian, and discussions at the Global Editors Network regarding automated journalism launching in Europe as early as next year.


The concept of automated journalism first gained widespread attention this March, after an earthquake provided an early wake-up call to the residents of Beverly Hills, California at 6:25 a.m. The Los Angeles Times had a story about the quake on their website up as quickly as three minutes later, according to Ken Schwenke, the reporter who’s byline accompanied the story.

How? The brief had been written by Quakebot, a program that extracts information from the U.S. Geological Survey, plugs it into a pre-configured template, and then pushes it onto the Times‘ content management system, where it waits for Schwenke to publish it.

As the Slate piece acknowledges, it’s not exactly award-winning content, but it is fast and accurate:

A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.

This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

The Times utilizes a similar bot for stories about homicides, as well.
While it’s true that the majority of automated journalism stories are based off of these fill-in-the-blank formats, the New Yorker‘s Kevin Roose points out this isn’t always the case:
Robot-generated stories aren’t all fill-in-the-blank jobs; the more advanced algorithms use things like perspective, tone, and humor to tailor a story to its audience. A robot recapping a basketball game, for example, might be able to produce two versions of a story using the same data: one upbeat story that reads as if a fan of the winning team had written it; and another glum version written from the loser’s perspective.
As early as 2012, the fear surrounding automated technologies replacing human journalists was being talked about, both in newsrooms and in published articles. Steven Levy wrote a great piece for Wired in that year, hinting at his own suspicions about the potential impact on journalists: “That’s when I decided to write this article, hoping to finish it before being scooped by a MacBook Air.”
Opportunity for investigation, analysis and emotion
It’s no secret that the state of the journalism industry has been precarious for years now, to say the least. In truth, it’s been cruel.
Graph newspaper reporter jobs

Full-time professional news jobs at newspapers in the U.S. Source: American Society of News Editors

However, with what journalists have endured and overcome since the collapse started in the late 2000’s, it would be wrong to worry about robots taking more jobs away.

If anything, this should present an exciting opportunity for journalists to re-focus their efforts on the canons of the profession – investigation, analysis, and curiosity, for example. Journalists should relish the fact that they have a machine willing to produce the boring (sorry, but it is) copy like sports recaps, detailing minor updates on beat news, stock market updates, and the like.

Instead, journalists should look at this as a tool to provide more time for hitting the asphalt and talking to people. As the example from Quakebot shows, the bots produce cold content that don’t reflect the societal aspect of the news. If the basic facts are packaged neatly into a pre-structured template, journalists can instead add the tone and emotion of the piece. This automation should allow reporters the opportunity to add meat to the bare bones that the robot produces, raising the quality of work overall, and beef up the story-telling capabilities.

From another angle, the time that could possibly be freed as a result of software taking up this work could allow journalists to do more in the way of investigative pieces. More time spent away from the copy desk and talking to sources can only present more quality work in the public interest. Taken even further, using algorithms that can scan documents, reports, and databases, will provide journalists a kind of personal research assistant, allowing for even greater pieces.

This might be of little consolation for journalists who have been hearing this for years. More hyperlocal news. People want analysis and contextualization. If you can produce good investigative work, turn over every rock and find the right blend of cynicism and curiosity. These were the messages presented to student journalists for years, and it must be becoming tired.

Yet in this case, we must embrace this as a tool. If used effectively, it can only help increase the quality of the news produced and consumed on a daily basis.

The automation of press releases?

Granted, it can be exploited. A major fear off the top of the head is the way such tools can be used to produce more native advertising and plug more press releases into editorial pages. Surely, templates for this type of work already exist and will become a desirable option for news outlets to try to recoup the advertising losses suffered in the past six or seven years.

Transparency and accountability will be other issues to consider.

However, for journalists themselves, this should be looked at as a great aid. As sophisticated as these tools may become, human consciousness will always be needed. An algorithm can report on Rob Ford’s approval rating, but it can’t put that in the context of his time in office. Software can report on the box score from a hockey game, but not the roar of the crowd when a goalie made a toe save with minutes left. Tone, emotion, and human interest all rely on writers – good writers – and that will always be the case.

Let’s use these tools to get back to the important work. The inspiring, the advocating.

Let’s turn things around.

What are your thoughts on the impact robot journalism will have on the news industry? Please comment below or reach out on Twitter!

One thought on “Seeing Automation As Opportunity, Not The End

  1. “Yet in this case, we must embrace this as a tool. If used effectively, it can only help increase the quality of the news produced and consumed on a daily basis.” Absolutely! Automation will start more and more ‘infringing’ on what has been a human domain, but this is inevitable as technology infuses itself more into our everyday lives. Use it for the day to day repetitive tasks – that’s what computers/automation excel at – and let the humans do the more creative/emotional/strategic tasks. That’s where we shine.


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