The recent rise of artificial intelligence has influenced businesses across industries. Journalism and media are the latest fields to join the party, experimenting with using AI and machine learning to better their operations. But any new technological introduction is met with some hand-wringing when outcomes and effects are uncertain, and news is no different – the Associated Press’ 2017 announcement that they were using software to automate some sports and investment writing led to confusion: Would quality go down? Would writers and reporters lose their jobs? What did this mean for the news?
As it turns out, fears of catastrophic consequences seem misguided. In an interview with Poynter, the AP’s vice president and managing editor, Lou Ferrara, outlined its potential for making the newsroom more efficient, as well as how the AP will continue to expand its use in their operations – part of a quest to eliminate “a lot of sprawling, legacy-type processes…that consume people’s time” and “use the resources we have to [instead] do the journalism.”
To Ferrara, “anything, where there’s structured data”, is ripe for automation. The AP is honing “a couple of technologies” to pull information from government databases and get it to reporters faster. Weather reports are being automated; election coverage is an area of “deep exploration”, with the potential to explore the data analysis side more quickly, and on a larger scale, than ever before. Videos and photos also hold tremendous potential, with Ferrara citing the editing process as one example.
Time and money are the ultimate determining factors for Ferrara when determining whether to automate a process: can algorithms perform time-saving processes so journalists can focus their attention more productively? Ferrara believes that in a “messy business” like journalism, time spent researching information and interviewing people is of greatest value. Removing process-oriented work that could be farmed out to AI creates more time for journalists to do real journalism.
In a shifting market, time saved also means money saved – which helps the AP survive. Ferrara characterizes the organization as “realists” pushing to remove unnecessary “legacy operations and processes” from legacy media. He describes the industry as quick to embrace change for “production work” rather than “the craft of journalism”. His job is to remove impediments to that craft – he cites earnings reports as a prime example – while adapting to changing tastes, like a desire for more player-focused content in sports journalism, meaningless human effort covering the game itself.
Ferrara believes that AI and human reporters can coexist in ways that enhance strengths and mitigate weaknesses. “I think that won't go away is bread-and-butter investigative reporting and reporting the news that no one else has,” says Ferrara. “When I see the news reporters are breaking, there's a lot of stuff that isn't going to be done by a robot…automation is going to be part of [journalists’] lives…[but as] tools in the background…to surface information to them faster.”
The AP has hired an automation editor, Justin Myers, to find new processes to streamline, and Ferrara acknowledges there will be some degree of job loss – but new jobs will also be created. “There's a never-ending supply of news and information [in journalism] you need to go report,” says Ferrara. “Every time you're freeing up a staffer's time, or somebody's time, that time is going elsewhere to do something that is more relevant in the modern media world we're living in.” Can automation and news delivery go hand-in-hand? If the Associated Press is any indication, not only can they coexist – they can thrive.
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