Why ‘Robot Reporters’ Are a Good Thing

First of all, let’s not let allow the alluring alliteration to distract from we’re really talking about — not robot reporters, but robot writers.

Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff asked me what I thought about the news that Durham’s Automated Insights would be writing automated business stories for the Associated Press.

This trend excites me about the future of journalism. I’ve been talking with folks about it for about five years, since I first saw similar work that was being incubated by Northwestern’s journalism school. That effort grew into the company Narrative Science, which has been writing earnings preview stories for Forbes.com. The Los Angeles Times uses an algorithm to write earthquake stories. The Washington Post has looked into using Narrative Science for high school sports stories.

The Guardian learned how hard it is to build a robot writer, but the automated stories I’ve seen written by both Automated Insights and Narrative Science are pretty good. And 46 media and communications undergrads couldn’t distinguish a computer written story from one written by a human.

The trend in automation should free up the best writers and best reporters to add the how and why context that still needs to be done by humans. If I were a beat reporter at a newspaper I’d be working as fast I could to convince by editor to let a computer write the scut stories I have to write and free me up to do more explanatory and accountability reporting, or to craft beautifully written narratives.

One significant risk is that for the last decade we’ve seen “good enough” journalism growing in popularity. News organizations that continue to have a strategy of harvesting profits rather than investing in growth will no doubt cut reporters if machines can write commodity news at a lower cost.

If I were a young journalist looking for my first job, I’d be looking for news organizations that are sustaining a small margin and growing both expenses and revenues — the ones that are using both bots and humans.

The trend toward automation will result in an emphasis on the news value of impact. Mass customization is going to change the nouns in the leads of stories from the third person to the second — “investors” will become “you.”

The trick is how to make money off this. News organizations that continue to see themselves as manufacturers of goods will probably increase the volume of digital commodity content they publish and continue to drive down ad rates.

But smart content companies are evolving from a manufacturing industry to a service industry, and trying to create, explain and capture the value they provide to each client by getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

What we see now as data is as unsophisticated as what many of us thought of data when Google first made its mission organizing all of it. We think of data now as numbers in tables — scores, money, temperatures, but we’ll soon see data as behavior and content metadata. And we will see automated stories that incorporate the user’s data and the data of her social network as well.

That level of concierge news service, though, is going to come at a price for users. If we’ve seen the democratization of media this automation trend has the potential to create a world of media haves and have nots — the haves will pay premium subscription fees to get highly personalized news from bots. The have-nots will get generic news (maybe written by bots as well).

The one thing from which I think everyone will benefit is an increase in the quality and frequency of narrative writing, and of explanatory and accountability reporting.

To aid that transition I’m working on the idea that we can use digital public records to build a newsroom dashboard system that will alert beat reporters to possible story ideas. Automated Insights and Narrative Science are scaling commodity news stories. I want to see if we can lower the human reporters’ opportunity cost of pursuing enterprise stories that land with much bigger and much longer lasting impact.

If you want a pithy quote from a journalism prof. on the effect that robot writers are going to have on the job market for journalism students, here it is: “My C students are probably screwed. My A students are going to do better than ever.”

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