We Journalists Should Not Fear Automation
on 16 October 2017.
The following is an expansion of thoughts shared during an interview with the Greek newspaper “Kathimerini” for my participation in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism The Lede Program for data journalists on a Stavros Niarchos Foundation scholarship.
Human civilization has always been a civilization of transmitting and decoding information. In the era of Broadband Internet, Mobile Devices, Connected Machines and Data Economies, we produce more Information than ever. And the more artificial intelligences will communicate with each other and with humans, the more information the digital technologies will produce.
In this environment, journalists should fear or adopt technology and automation?
I believe that journalists should feel more empowered than ever. Information is today produced in enormous amounts, and information is a journalist’s raw material.
Using technology (data analysis and visualization techniques, as well as automation) and delving into data produced by public and private sources, or the civic society, a journalist can confirm or reject information, discover different angles to a story, or present her findings in a consumable and compelling way.
Data Journalism (when it’s being applied either to deeper investigations or to more light-hearted, ‘everyday’ outputs) and other formats that make use of modern digital technologies (apps, bots, social media, 360o and drone videos) are already the present of Journalism. Automation Journalism, where robots will take up the job of writing up tedious beats with a high level of repetition such as the Stock Exchange closing, the weather, or corporate financial results, will be the Future.
As Francesco Marconi, Strategy manager and AI co-lead at Associated Press, highlighted during a recent Automation Journalism workshop at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the increasing use of automation technologies in newsrooms is giving rise to a new role; the role of Automation Editor, whose job description is defined as “identifying and evaluating opportunities to automate the creation and production of news content and alert other journalists to potential stories,” by “writing applications and libraries to implement new automation processes.”
What worries most journalists is losing their job to a robot. However, this looks highly unlikely - at least for the next 18 years and for the UK market - according to an Oxford University and Deloitte research, visualized beautifully by BBC, in a co-production of Greek data journalist Nassos Stylianou.
Associated Press has been publishing auto-generated reports on corporate earnings since 2014, and on Minor League Baseball games since 2016, in partnership with Automated Insights, a ‘Natural Language Generation’ company. According to Marconi, this automated coverage led to 0 journalists losing their jobs and to a multiple times increase of content output for AP, with two direct effects: freeing up reporters’ time to work on more complex and meaningful stories, and boosting income for the organization from selling more content.
Journalism right now is under pressure everywhere around the world, to a large extent due to financial reasons: readers are in their vast majority looking for free content, while advertising dollars are now being spent on social media and search engines.
But Journalism will have a future, although a future kind of different from its past. The industry is (and will be) affected by the disruptions of digital technologies on every aspect of our lives. That is why both legacy and digital-first media are turning to new business models and to making use of those digital technologies, in order to create stories and experiences appealing to the new generations of digital-native readers.
Discussing with media industry insiders, the real big revolution technology will bring is shrinking the newsroom. Algorithms will not only take up the laborious tasks of writing up summaries of the weekend football matches, but will also decide which journalist from a pool of outsourced contractors has the appropriate expertise, reporting skills, social media reach, and is in the vicinity of a media event to get the assignment.
On the flip side, the human factor is not going to vanish, for the time being at least; either as the operator of technology, or as producer of natural language-based outputs. Machines might be very good with numbers and stats, which makes them able to crunch earning reports way faster and more accurate than human reporters, but they’re going to suck for a long time in producing meaningful, insightful, well-researched texts.
Millions of jobs will be lost across industries, but as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAffee suggest in their seminal book ‘The Second Machine Age’ machines are more likely to supplement rather than substitute humans. All we journalists have to do is equip ourselves with skills that will allow us to talk to the machines and hear back from them, so we are prepared for the different shapes our jobs are going to take in the future.
I just used my automation skills to build a bot that tweets every time a listed company makes a filing with the Athens Stock Exchange. What have you built? Share in the comments or drop an email.