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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2014

Robots vs Journalists? It's happening

Robots are taking over the role of reporting news, especially when it comes to the type of news that is based on merely on being the bringers of news.

One example from earlier this week was an article about the earthquake in LA, which was covered in this story written entirely by a computer. And compared to so many other stories, I actually find this to be one of the best. Especially if you compare it to articles like this one from the Associated Press, which is filled with irrelevant fluff.

What possible value does it have to send out a journalist to get eyewitness reports like this:

My dog got out of bed, and she came looking for me," Smith said. "She was shivering terribly.

But how good is automatic software-based reporting really? The answer is very, very good... at least according to a new study from Sweden.

Christer Clerwall, from Karlstad University in Sweden decided to do a 'blind test', asking students to compare news reports done by both journalists and software algorithms. The result was that the software algorithms are now just as good at writing news reports as people.

As you can see from the graphs below, when it came to how the story was perceived, journalists and software algorithms were nearly identical. The only slight difference being that journalistic-written articles appeared slightly better written, although less useful, trustworthy, and informative.

In other words, journalists are better storytellers but their stories are just not that good.

Even more interesting is when you he asked them to guess who had written the article. 56% responded that they thought the articles written by journalists were actually written by a computer, while 37% thought journalists had written those made by a computer.

In other words, in terms of simply being the bringer of news, journalists have now been outcompeted by software. People can't tell the difference, and software algorithms can work much faster, more accurate (if the data is accurate of course), and 24-7 at almost zero cost.

The old business model of being a reporter and to 'bring the news' is over. This will in the future be done completely automatically, and it's only a matter of time before the big tech companies move in. The next time there is an earthquake, Google Now, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana will simply read aloud the story like the one done automatically by LA Times. Several startups will try to capitalize on this by creating data-news content services. And while many of these will not succeed, the best ones will eventually be incorporated into other services.

In many ways, what is happening to journalists is the same that once happened to the fashion industry. As you may know I started my career in fashion, and the first company I worked for employed about 60 people. There were 2 sales people, 2 designers, 4 administrative staff, 3 technicians, a janitor, and about 50 seamstresses. During the time I was there, those 50 seamstresses lost their job, because the production was outsourced to Poland (and later China).

The people in Poland could do the same job, at a higher quality, with fewer resources, and much, much cheaper. A company with 60 employees could now be run using only eight - and still make the same product.

This is what's happening to journalism.

So the question all journalists should ask themselves is "are you a seamstress? ...or are you a designer?" If you are merely a seamstress, i.e. a journalist merely reporting stories based on available information, your future looks bleak.

But if you are a designer, i.e. a journalist who goes beyond just reporting the news, but instead focus on providing insight, perspective, analysis, then your future is looking better than ever. In a world of data, we need people to give us perspective and to help us translate it into something that is relevant for us as individuals.

And no, this doesn't mean interviewing eyewitnesses that have nothing insightful to tell, nor does it evolve interviewing experts or pundits who merely conjecture without having any real insight. It's about being better than the news itself.

Sadly though, many newspapers are currently moving in the wrong direction with their pageview-optimized news reporting. They are trying to build traffic by bringing people even more news, not realizing that that's exactly the what automatic algorithms do best.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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