July 1, 2014

AP’s plan to automate stories about earnings reports is designed to make life easier for human journalists, not to replace them, AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said.

Twitter jokes about our new robot journalist overlords notwithstanding, automation technology isn’t coming for the stories most reporters are writing; in fact, the majority of AP’s software-generated business stories will be stories that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. AP anticipates moving 4,400 stories per quarter with the new technology, up from 300 per quarter before.

Ferrara, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, said “several dozen reporters” will be impacted by automation because covering most business beats — retail, energy, airlines, you name it — requires covering quarterly earning statements throughout the year. But the new technology doesn’t mean humans won’t still participate in the process.

“We’re still going to cover earnings season,” he said. “What I’m trying to get out of is the data processing business. I can’t have journalists spending a ton of time data processing stuff. Instead I need them reporting.”

The less time reporters are required to crunch data, he said, the more time reporters will have to do the reporting it takes to make those numbers meaningful.

Transparent taglines

Automated stories will include a tagline citing Automated Insights, the company whose technology will power the stories, and Zacks Investment Research, which will provide the data. Ferrara said he hoped the stories will survive edits by AP member organizations. “We think it’s important that it’s out there out of full disclosure more than anything, but I can’t control every customer and member,” he said. “Zacks and Automated Insights understand that as well.”

Robbie Allen, CEO of Automated Insights, told Poynter in March that many of his clients don’t disclose which stories are generated by his company’s technology. “People are much more critical of automated content just because they want to find the bugs in the software,” Allen said at the time.

But including a note in stories might help normalize the technology, both for readers and for other journalists leery of it. “I just know as a journalist, the more information and transparency I can provide, the better,” Ferrara said.

Fully automated by Q4?

Beginning in July, AP will initially check automated stories before they are published. But the goal is to be fully automated by the end of the year. That means earnings stories, running 150-300 words, will be generated and distributed automatically without any humans in the middle.

Stories about major companies like Apple and Google will still receive plenty of human attention, with automation freeing up journalists to get to work providing context and deeper reporting more quickly. Most companies, of course, won’t receive human attention from the AP, but Ferrara’s hope is that some of the earnings reports AP could never cover before will be followed up on by subscriber news organizations where those companies are located.

Automation will likely lead to some cookie-cutter content, Ferrara acknowledged, but even human-generated earnings stories often end up that way. The idea is that it’s better to provide three paragraphs about a company than zero, particularly if those three paragraphs provide a jumping-off point for human journalists, at the AP or elsewhere.

Beyond business stories, Ferrara said he sees potential for the technology to tackle sports, like NCAA Division II and Division III events. Automated Insights has written individualized fantasy football reports and Chicago-based Narrative Science has written Little League recaps, so there’s potential to write about all kinds of underserved topics and beats — many of which reporters wouldn’t be clamoring to cover even if it were economically feasible.

“Anywhere where there’s data,” Ferrara said, “there’s clearly an opportunity here to look at how things are done.”

Correction: A previous version of this piece misspelled Lou Ferrara’s last name in one paragraph. Also, Automated Insights hasn’t written Little League recaps, but Narrative Science has.

Previously: AP will use robots to write some business stories | ‘Robot’ to write 1 billion stories in 2014 — but will you know it when you see it?

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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