Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Robo-reporters join the newsroom

Question: How long did it take an Associated Press reporter to write this story Thursday on Costco’s quarterly earnings?

“ISSAQUAH, Wash. (AP) – Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) on Thursday reported fiscal second-quarter net income of $598 million.

“On a per-share basis, the Issaquah, Washington-based company said it had profit of $1.35.

“The results exceeded Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of 16 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of $1.17 per share.”

Answer: No time at all. It was written by a robot.

In October, The AP began using robots to write simple earnings reports. It announced last week that robots also will write some of its college sports stories, beginning this spring with baseball.

Essentially, The AP writes a formulaic story in advance, leaving blanks for a computer to fill in with live data. It works because every earnings story contains the same kinds of information.

Likewise, baseball game stories contain the same basic fill-in-the-blank statistics. The robot simply wraps some words around them.

The AP’s technology is provided by Automated Insights, a company whose Twitter profile states: “Let your data tell its story with Wordsmith, our natural language generation platform. We turn data into narratives.”

As someone who leads a room full of living, breathing wordsmiths who also turn data into narratives, that creeps me out.

But it’s also worth considering.

AP reporters used to write quarterly earnings reports on 300 companies; AP robots write reports on 3,000 companies. That means they get to more companies in our community.

Robots will create thousands more sports “stories” than reporters could create, AP’s deputy director of sports products said in news reports last week, adding: “Every college sports town will have some level of coverage.”

The AP also reports a better accuracy rate without all that pesky human intervention.

AP says it is not replacing reporters with robots. Rather, it’s assigning these routine form stories to a computer so reporters have more time to provide analysis, interview people affected by the news and add context.

I don’t know of a journalist who’d rather type in data than write deeply on a subject.

The AP isn’t alone on this technology front.

A year ago, the Los Angeles Times was able to report an earthquake near Beverly Hills three minutes after it happened. An editor there had written a script that monitored the U.S. Geological Survey website and automatically generated a story when the quake hit.

In a sense, we use a robot to produce election night poll results for The News Tribune. We’ve written a computer script that scrapes the state auditor’s website and generates numbers for each race on our website. We pull those numbers onto a template for the next day’s paper.

Not so long ago, we waited by the fax machine for poll results and then furiously typed them onto the page for the newspaper. Years ago, as a reporter in Indiana, I was assigned to stand by at the county courthouse, write down election results from their giant chalkboard and run them across the street to my editor.

I’d have given anything for a robot to do that job so I could be out interviewing the evening’s winners and losers.

The TNT has run some of the AP robot company earnings reports, and will do the same with AP’s sports stories.

We’d consider other ways to automate the pure dissemination of facts, but we’ll leave the thinking to human reporters. I’d put our wordsmiths up against theirs any time.

The response of TNT reporters when I shared this business about “robo-reporters?”

Not surprisingly, one wrote quickly back: “I can’t wait for robo-editors.”

LET THE SUN SHINE

Next week is Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of open government. The Washington Coalition for Open Government will kick it off Saturday with a day-long conference in Tacoma.

The keynote speaker will be Jeff Paff, a government watchdog from New Jersey who was inducted last year into the State Open Government Freedom of Information Hall of Fame.

One panel will deal with public officials’ use of personal communication devices. And, as a member of the WaCOG board of directors, I’ll lead a panel on police use of body cams.

The event will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Allenmore Events Center, 2013 S. Cedar St. You can register at www.washingtoncog.org.

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