The android dreams of electrifying content.

The trend of publishers turning to software-generated journalism has fueled growing anxieties among living, breathing journalists about job security and overall industry stability. But what kinds of content are algorithms able to effectively churn out?

“Robot journalists” have recently come into vogue, with the Associated Press notably among the publishers that have begun implementing some form of automation in their content creation processes. In the AP’s case, tech partner Automated Insights is tackling minor league baseball reporting and market news. Rather than eliminating existing jobs, the automation is actually just expanding the scope of the AP’s coverage, enabling the wire service to report on previously overlooked subject matter.

Easing the Burden

While heightened anxieties among journalists may, at this point, be unfounded, it’s worth considering how far the technology has already come in transforming the way some publishers compose and churn out material. Tools like Narrative Science’s Quill (used by Forbes), and Quakebot (used by the Los Angeles Times) have already been implemented to cover routine business news or, in the LA Times’ case, breaking regional news. For the AP, using the technology has not led to the elimination of any editorial positions — but it has lightened the writing staff’s load of monotonous but necessary items like quarterly earnings reports.

Philana Patterson, an Assistant Business Editor tasked with implementing the system, told The Verge that there was some skepticism from the AP staff at first, and with good reason. “I wouldn’t expect a good journalist to not be skeptical,” she said. Patterson said that when the program first kicked off in July, every automated story was vetted by a human editor, with errors logged and sent to Automated Insights to make the necessary tweaks. Full automation began in October, when stories “went out to the wire without human intervention.”

The Verge also reports that the automated system is now logging fewer errors than the human-produced pieces from years past. Robo-journalists learn quickly from mistakes, and once an error is flagged, the tools are programmed to avoid repetition. When implemented effectively, automation has the potential to free up human journalists’ time to pursue more high-level, complex, and investigative projects.

The Drawbacks

So is the paranoia about lost journalism jobs warranted? Automation services certainly have a place in expanding outlets’ coverage of straightforward subject matter. But so long as publishers continue to value strength of opinion, human instinct, and overall journalistic excellence, it’s unlikely that robo-journalists will come to dominate the publishing industry.

Despite the many benefits publishers may reap from the implementation of automated reporting tools, the human touch cannot be so easily replicated. The fact remains that automated systems remain unable to cultivate a unique voice, cater to specific audiences, crack a joke, offer up a personal anecdote, or strike a moving contrast. The systems are costly and require intensive oversight in order to report and remove errors. Publishers must also be prepared to disclose to readers how automated items were written, and take ownership of machine-generated mistakes.

When it comes to honest journalism and effective, informative, business writing, there’s simply too much at stake to turn over the whole kit and caboodle to a system of algorithms — no matter how well programmed.

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Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

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