Friend or Foe? The News Media Debate Robot Journalism

When I think of robots, I still picture Rosie from The Jetsons.

But while the robot journalism phenomenon doesn’t employ Rosie, per se, it utilizes “robots” (read: software and algorithms) to sort through large amounts of data.

The result is news stories produced in seconds.

Associated Press fully embraced this concept in July, when it released its first earnings piece with the assistance of Wordsmith, a platform of Durham-based Automated Insights.

Wordsmith truly has the capacity to revolutionize earnings coverage. Imagine, for example, covering “all 4,400 public companies in the US in real time within five minutes of earnings reports coming out,” says Automated Insights CEO Robbie Allen.

“I don’t see Wordsmith as a threat to the future of journalism,” Allen says. “We’re enabling media companies to cover things they previously wouldn’t have been able to cover. It’ll help grow the pie for media companies.”

So far, the journalism community appears to have mixed feelings about this. Consider some headlines in recent months: Robots Are Invading the News Business, and It’s Great for Journalists, It’s All Over: Robots Are Now Writing News Stories, And Doing A Good Job, Should We Be Afraid Or Excited About Robot Journalism?, and Who’s Afraid of Robot Journalists?

But AP is pretty content with its direction.

In June, AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said in the blog post A Leap Forward in Quarterly Earnings Stories that automation technology will free up journalists from “hammering out a quick story recapping each” earnings report. Journalists also will be able to spend more time on beat reporting and source development.

It also doesn’t mean AP no longer will be providing editorial coverage of earnings.

“If anything, we are doubling down on the journalism we will do around earnings reports and business coverage,” Ferrara said, in his post. “We are going to use our brains and time in more enterprising ways during earnings season … our journalists will focus on reporting and writing stories about what the numbers mean and what gets said in earnings calls on the day of the release, identifying trends and finding exclusive stories we can publish at the time of the earnings reports.”

Automated Insights began working with AP primarily for sports reporting, automating sports previews and fantasy football recaps. Finance also seemed like a logical place to partner.

“I think computers are better at sorting the data,” Allen said. “When it comes to quantifiable analysis, software is so much better than people. That’s only growing – the amount of data our programs can go through is tremendous.”

Last year, Automated Insights produced more than 300 million personalized stories for a variety of customers and corporate clients, including Yahoo and Allstate.

These personalized stories ranged from internal sales reporting to generating reports for individual companies.

Automated Insights projects that it will produce a billion personalized stories for clients this year.

So is there ever making a mistake with an automated piece?

Allen said the content could have bugs in it just like software, such as a misplaced bit of punctuation or an odd turn of phrase. But Automated Insights has an extensive quality assurance process.

“We feel really good about what’s going to come out,” he said.

And the feedback and publicity has been overwhelmingly positive, Allen added.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Reporters would say, ‘I’m glad someone is finally doing this.’”

Want to weigh in on the robot journalism issue? If you plan to attend SXSW 2015, you can vote this panel discussion up or down: When Robots Write The News, What Will Humans Do?.

Both Allen and Ferrara plan to speak.

Christine Cube is a media relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow her @cpcube.

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35 Responses

  1. Ken Dowell says:

    While the AP and others are quick to point out that they are not using robots to replace journalists I think the impact that this is going to have is to reduce the number of entry level positions at newsrooms. A lot of journalists got their start by doing re-writes of things like financial reports, news releases or sports box scores and those are precisely the things that can be done programatically.

    • Christine Cube says:

      I know exactly what you’re saying, Ken. I got my journalism start doing earnings pieces and other general assignment stories. I can’t imagine starting out in a newsroom today without laying some of that basic writing groundwork. But I see how this could benefit a seasoned newsroom looking to expand its coverage.

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