Why we should be celebrating the rise of robot journalism instead of criticizing it

Ever since companies like Narrative Science started to become more well-known outside of data-science and machine-learning circles, journalists and fans of traditional media have expressed concern that robots — or rather, content-authoring software that is powered by algorithms — might someday take over the duties of real journalists. In fact, that’s been happening fairly steadily in certain journalism markets over the past several years, including sports journalism, and now there is another major entrant: Associated Press, the global newswire, has announced a content partnership with Automated Insights, an algorithm-driven content-production company.

In this case, as the Poynter Institute describes, the AP will be distributing stories that are automatically generated by Automated Insights (which Associated Press has acquired a small investment stake in) based on earnings reports from Zack’s, an investment research company. According to a post by AP on the announcement, the newswire service expects the new partnership will allow it to produce 10 times as many earnings reports as before — and managing editor Lou Ferrara said that soon a majority of AP earnings reports will be automated.

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Although some journalists may be afraid that Automated Insights and Narrative Science will take away their jobs, Ferrara says the new partnership isn’t about cutting jobs, but about freeing up human reporters from having to engage in the drudgery of earnings reports, which in turn will allow them to devote their time to pieces that add value:

“Rather than spending a great deal of time focusing on the release of earnings and hammering out a quick story recapping each one, we are going to automate that process for all U.S. companies… 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.”

Narrative Science has been generating sports stories — game wrap-ups, etc. — and earnings-based reports for a number of clients including Forbes magazine for a couple of years now. In an interview with Steven Levy of Wired magazine, co-founder Kristian Hammond estimated that within 15 years robots or algorithms would be writing about 90 percent of what we consider news-based journalism. Is that a bad thing? It is if you endorse a kind of “full employment” principle for human journalists, but not if you actually care about journalism.

The harsh reality is that much of what appears in newspapers and on websites is not the kind of ground-breaking, investigative or analytical content most people think of when they hear the term “journalism.” Some of it is pedestrian content about sporting events, earnings reports, news releases, calendar events, city council meetings and so on. Wouldn’t it be better if we could automate some of that and free up reporters to do other things?

In a way, the debate about robot journalists is similar to the concern about the rise of “citizen journalism” or amateur journalism: namely, the fear among some traditional journalists that these new competitors will take jobs away from professionals. But by widening the pool of available reporters to include both amateurs and robots, we increase the amount of potential journalism being done — all it means is that as a professional journalist, you now have to make sure that you are better than a robot. If you aren’t, you should probably think about finding another line of work anyway.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Ociacia