Will robotic news production help or hinder?

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett February 5, 2019
Summary:
An interesting story about robotic news production got me thinking about the place of robots in content production. Does it matter? Do you care?

A robot sitting at a desk

Is robotic news production in your near future? Last Friday, Guardian Australia published its first news story written by a robotic app called ReporterMate. Discussing the idea, the Guardian's Nick Evershed said:

It’s a program that takes a dataset and a story template file then turns it into a news story without much human intervention.

So why are we doing this? And, as my colleagues keep joking – won’t it make reporters redundant?

These days news organisations have fewer staff but still need to cover a large amount of news. And, despite having less time, journalists often have to write formulaic stories. Such as covering the weather – how hot is it? Is it a new record? Or recurring stories like politician’s expenses and political donations. Who spent the most? Who are the top five? Were donations more or less than last year?

These types of stories also often require some mathematical analysis, which can tie up other resources in the newsroom. Journalists would prefer to be spending time on deeper, more meaningful investigations, such as why the climate is changing, and how does it affect people? Or which politicians are abusing the expenses system?

On its face, this sounds like a reasonable thing to do but as I let the rationale of the story sink in I asked myself a question. Why bother? Reporting facts isn't news, it's doing what it says on the tin. News is when you uncover something unique or different about a set of (alleged) facts that drives towards a conclusion that others might have missed. It is that 'deeper, meaningful' stuff to which Evershed refers.

So while I admire the sentiment it strikes me that what he's really talking about can be divided into two areas:

  1. Stuff we want to know on a daily basis - the weather for sure, major stock price movements and the like.
  2. Filler - content that is the equivalent of fish wrap and as equally disposable.

I get the argument about needing those filler pieces to continue driving eyeballs where there are large scale ambitions, with accompanying ad dollars. But at the end of the day, what I tend to see is a welter of the same 'stuff' that has almost zero value beyond the immediacy that comes with straight event style reporting. It's one of the principle reasons why I'm more than happy for others to glom onto what they think is of interest to the many. You can then choose any of a dozen or more outlets from which to take a story. Check Techmeme to see what I mean.

But as someone once wisely told me, it is the interesting stuff that really matters. It's the nuance that turns a set of dry facts into a contextually relevant narrative that interests me. That may be of little interest to the many but it is often of intense interest to those who have a vested interest in the topic subject.

Hats off to The Guardian for not only working up but releasing the code in open source. I'm sure there's a good number of media types who can find a use for it. My hope is that this method of content assembly releases media resource to do the work I prefer. My expectation though is that some media will go in the opposite direction, treating robots as an automated pathway to replacing aggregated content on those sites that used to routinely strip mine content from elsewhere. After all, if your brand can support millions of eyeballs gazing over formulaically produced content then why wouldn't you?