You couldn’t make it up! The rise of the ‘robo-writer’

Paul Blanchard
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Source: Getty

A recent news story about political donations to Australia’s political parties isn’t normally something to grab my attention, but this brief article in the Guardian did - thanks to its byline.

The reporter was a robot called “Reporter Mate”.

The robot ‒ or experimental automated news reporting system, as Guardian Australia calls it ‒ is a program that takes a dataset and a story template and turns it into a news story “without much human intervention”, according to Nick Evershed, the Guardian Australia’s data and interactives editor, who built the robot reporter.

The Guardian’s automated reporter is far from the first cyber scribe. An increasing number of news organisations including Bloomberg, Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times use automated technology to report on company news, minor league baseball, high school football... and earthquakes.

About a third of the content published by Bloomberg News uses some form of automated technology, according to the New York Times. The Bloomberg system, called, imaginatively, “Cyborg”, can help reporters churn out thousands of articles on company earnings reports each quarter.

Admirers of automated news note that it doesn’t make typos, get tired, take extended boozy lunch breaks, or moan about its boss. So should Guardian journos (and those at other newspapers) start to update their CVs and put out feelers to humans in other newspapers?

Well, in the past two months, two of the biggest commercial online news providers, BuzzFeed and Vice, have announced about 2,000 job cuts. They blamed “fake news” online and traditional media’s slowness to adapt to digital media, leaving a void for quality journalism.

But there’s no need to worry about robots replacing reporters at the Guardian, according to Evershed. Robot journalists can do the formulaic stories such as reporting on the weather, or recurring stories such as politician’s expenses and political donations, he says. Who spent the most? Were donations more or less than last year?

That gives journalists time to focus on more interesting and rewarding stuff, such as investigations and in-depth features that require a lot of research and time out of the office interviewing people, supporters of robo journalism argue. Humans can also understand and interpret complex issues and nuanced debate better than a machine can.

Even if robots don’t create job cuts, there are other threats to reporters, such as “user generated content” ‒ stories and pictures that are provided (for free) by readers.

A few years ago, Newsquest, a local media group, offered a cash incentive for whichever of its newspapers could demonstrate it had published the most. A Newsquest group co-ordinator at the National Union of Journalists said that the latest scheme was showed that the company was trying to “undermine” its journalists in the hope of putting them out of work. (This claim was denied by Newsquest.)

The worry for journalists is that newspaper owners, amid falling circulation and lower than hoped for profits from online advertising, will hire more bots, scale back news reporting and expand opinion pieces ‒ especially if it can be done for free by freelance “contributors”. The hope is that this will signal a return to what many hacks refer to as “proper” journalism; investigative pieces that uphold the values of the Fourth Estate, holding governments and big business to account.

Time will tell whether the future of the industry lies in longform, investigative journalism written by humans while the robots do the grunt work. However, the inability of most news organisations to find a commercially viable model for quality journalism so far seems to spell out bad news for everyone.

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