Future Cast: Will Robots Replace Journalists like Toll Collectors?
Friday, August 14, 2015
Will robots be the future of journalism? Before you discount that proposition consider this: the LA Times and AP have already incorporated robots into their news reporting operations. Just last August, NBC News included journalism among a list of nine professions to become vastly altered by machine replacing man, even to the point of being obsolete.
It is no secret that two trends point this as being plausible:
- Media organizations are economizing and diversifying in order to maintain audiences and profits. Today’s business model leans towards stringers and freelance contributors over full-time staff. Mobile news platforms are the growth corridor, and every news outlet is looking to harness the newest technology to win and hold its audience.
- We consume news differently than we did even five years ago. Between back-end algorithms to track user behaviors and the push toward data, technology is the essential competitive tool that newsrooms use to power speed, number crunching and fact analysis.
Reporting is Sky Rocketing
Enter journalism robots, which are generating automated news stories at an incredible rate. For the AP, it uses Automated Insights, a sophisticated back-end financial publishing technology that writes corporate earning recaps and does everything journalists used to do: retrieve data from earning reports, extract key insights and put them into context against an aggregate population, and intuitively formats news briefs in natural language. Robots distribute these stories in real-time to multiple media channels, including Yahoo, Comcast and Samsung. The impact for volume and cost is significant. The AP used to manually produce 300 earnings reports per quarter, leaving thousands of company stories unreported. Today it reports 4,400 financial news stories, a skyrocketing ten-fold increase.
Thus far, robot journalism has achieved traction in the quantitative-laden data environment of business news by extracting data from reports and plugging them into prewritten templates. Stories instantly have stock prices, ticker symbols, stock exchange and company names. Forbes.com uses artificial intelligence to generate and automate its distribution of news from live data sets and content from previous articles. Robots at the LA Times write on crime reports to earthquake activity. Robot journalism generates millions of articles per week and the technology can produce 2,000 articles per second.
Crazy for Robotics
We can theorize about how robots could infiltrate news reporting for other industries for which data collection is central to news content: science, medicine, astronomy, education, transportation, government, sports and energy are a few. Behind this list are entire news organizations, departments, writers and producers tasked with some key aspect of fact finding, analysis, content generation and deployment. Take Boston’s weather and the newsrooms that were on overdrive this winter reporting on record-breaking snowfall. They gave giddy daily updates of weekly fall comparing with data from the past 130 years.
Robotics and automated technologies have advanced mightily and replaced human hands in manufacturing and product distribution operations. More automation is on the way. In August 2014, NBC News reported that journalism is one of nine jobs to become obsolete, along with rescuers, babysitters, soldiers, astronauts, store clerks, drivers, paralegals, and pharmacists. To manage human behavior, the use of holograms and interactive avatars are becoming more commonplace as seen at Logan Airport’s TSA agents and with casino dealers at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. In Japan, androids are newsreaders, greatly reducing the unforeseen impact of a major personality change, or the foibles of an established news anchor like Brian Williams.
Is there Room to Welcome the Technology?
One could argue that robots are being deployed to operate a part of journalism that most do not want to do, and at greater speed and accuracy. Few journalists want to scan mundane wired stories looking for a glimmer of a story. In truth, summarizing the day’s business earnings and writing business briefs can be a very dull job.
Where will the trend toward robotics in journalism end? Will having humans in the boardroom but less in the newsroom neutralize political polarization of TV networks and daily newspapers? Will the proliferation of robot journalism eliminate the distinctive styles and personalities of news reporting as it becomes more homogenous? Will drones be doing field reporting, particularly in global areas of unrest where reporting puts a journalist’s life at risk? Who is accountable for data errors? Does the news organization own the story or is the automated technology liable?
For PR professionals how will we adapt? Could this be a positive trend relieving journalists of mundane data crunching for a chance to write more creative, probing and judgment-sourced-based articles? Will we see more investigative or feature stories in the future? And frankly, how do we pitch a robot? Are there ways to sway an aggregate technology? No doubt, personal relationships will be lost in various news departments. How about phone or email a robot? It is hard enough to get a response from a journalist these days. Email has already replaced coveted phone and one-on-one relationships from long ago. The downside is reaching a journalist and a robot will become more difficult. The plus side is that robot journalism could improve PR client measurement reports with more business-statistical generated media coverage.
Data is a growth industry, as is CRM. How robots factor in how we source, consume and enjoy diverse news content is an unfolding story. What is the tipping point where the value of human journalistic qualities such as emotion, curiosity, passion, ingenuity, insight, relationships, trust, and experience, balance the scales against the goals of audience reach, efficiency and ROI? How will the pricing model adapt for the changes in content?
As we ponder these perspectives, perhaps it bodes well for the value and respect that journalists and bloggers hold for our profession. In the meantime, the next time you flip a page of an E-Reader magazine or find an infographic, look at the byline and ask: was this story created by a journalist, or by a robot? And how is the PR profession educating itself for the eventuality of needing to factor both possibilities?
Maryanne Keeney is a former past President of the Publicity Club of New England.
This was also printed by the Publicity Club of New England.