LONG READ: News written by robot is already here shock

A reporter who was retiring after 47 years was looking back on his career where he successfully dodged technology.

On being told ‘Mike1958’ was not a safe password he was asked for one with seven characters.

“Okay,” he replied. ““Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy…”

The IT person threw down his headphones and stormed off.

I laughed, of course, because I knew the character. He’d invited me for a week of work experience when I was at journalism training college and his word had secured me my first junior reporter’s job. It led to 12 years working in news rooms and almost a decade of answering the phones to them.

Mike was an old school journalist who could turn a phrase and tell a story.

But technology and newspapers are not new.

I thought of Mike when I opened a whitepaper from a company called United Robots which looked at best practice in robot-written content.

How robots can change news

“This is not about replacing reporters,” it read, “It’s about complementing the quality journalism they do with all the community information that local residents expect.”

Sure, I thought.

The document went through how house sales locally could be automated into stories along with sport write-ups, traffic incidents and company annual reports.

The document pointed to Swedish and Dutch newspapers who were following this tactic along with A US publication The Rink Live that has cornered the market for school and college ice hockey reports in North Dakota.

Of course, the former journalist in me is affronted by this digitisation just as much as a production line welder would have been at news a robot was taking his job.

But it turns out the march of the robots in the UK is not new.

My old newspaper, the Express & Star, was one of eight to have signed-up with Press Association’s robot writing service three years ago. Sadly, the project’s website Robots and Data and Reporters was last updated two years ago and Google is pretty quiet about the success of the project.

So, ironically, there’s nothing to say how well this has gone.

How are robot news reporters impacting on comms team?

As the reporter in me balks, the communicator in me is intrigued.

The public sector is sat on an unimaginable mountain of data. An army of armchair analysts was expected when the coalition government steered a course to publish screeds of that information as open data.

This meant that it could be re-used by machines with code writtebn by humans. A CSV file is readable but a pdf is not.

I don’t think that armchair analysis has really happened.

And if I was to ask a comms team how they’d been impacted by robots, I’d get blank looks and maybe quite right too.

How could anyone quote the number of press enquiries that didn’t happen, for example?

Bright people like Kerry Sheehan and Stephen Waddington have worked to raise the issue through CIPR’s AI in PR project. The group published Andrew Bruce Smith’s brief pre-pandemic whitepaper on the Impact of AI in Media and PR.

In it, he wrote:

The role of the modern public relation practitioner is more akin to that of a commercial

pilot. In today’s automated environment, on average, the pilot of a Boeing 777 commercial jet has actual control of the plane, flying it manually, for only seven minutes of every flight.

This does not mean the pilot is unimportant, and very few of us would be comfortable getting on a plane that did not have a human pilot to take over when and as necessary.

In a similar way, we still need human input to the public relations process, particularly

in media relations, and we still need human intervention where necessary. The CIPR

estimated in a paper by Jean Valin called Humans Still Needed that machines would

be capable of undertaking up to 40 per cent of the tasks routinely undertaken by a practitioner by 2023.

It poses the question of what other data could be published by the public sector?

Could the sector use the tools that journalists are working with?

Or work with them?

What stories could they tell?

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