Business Process Automation

Robot Reporters Might Be Thin End of the Wedge

There appears to be much hand-wringing about the news that newswire giant AP will generate earnings reports via automation rather than journalists. That reaction is only to be expected: journalists tend to be prissy, protective and insistent on their own essential importance. And, as the former sentence might attest, fond of a lazy generalisation…

In reality, this is a segment well overdue some software magic, at least in terms of wrangling the basic facts and figures. Having written — what, several thousand? — many stories about financial quarters, year-ends, year-on-year up/down percentage comparisons, profits, losses, stock price movements, analyst comments, class-action suites and so on, I consider an algorithm well capable of this reporting by rote.

Quoted at Poynter.org, AP managing editor Lou Ferrara has this to say:

“We’re still going to cover earnings season. What I’m trying to get out of is the data processing business. I can’t have journalists spending a ton of time data processing stuff. Instead I need them reporting.”

Well, yes.

Journalists call these snippet stories News In Brief items, or NIBS. In essence, they ask little of the reporter other than the ability to understand basic arithmetic and building-block sentence structure, spelling and grammar.

The bigger question, of course, relates to the ability to provide analysis. A smart financial reporter will be able to dig deeper, call on memory, insight, knowledge of the broader market, meetings with the people involved. This is what journalism is for, not the quick recycling and reordering of facts that increasingly passes for reporting in the hamster-wheel quest to be first, fill pages, gain clicks.

Taken alone, AP’s move seems to me absolutely fine as journalists will be spared an onerous chore. But if I flex my reporting muscles, which have been hewn over a quarter-century, I will consider the layoffs taking pace at national and local newspapers, the closure of magazines, the preference over writers and editors for SEO experts who, with baited breath, await every utterance from the Google oracle.

And at that point I too begin to wring my hands.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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