Machine Made | Editor and publisher

Rob Tornoe | for editor and editor

On Oct. 15, an innocuous real estate story surfaced on the Miami Herald’s website touting the sale of a “spacious” three-bedroom home in North Miami Beach for $2.4 million.

So why is a 135-word memoir worth mentioning in this space? Because a robot wrote it.

McClatchy has begun experimenting with publishing transitional real estate stories with artificial intelligence software, part of a growing trend in newsrooms across the county. According to the editor’s note, they are based on “structured information from leading real estate data providers” applied to models created by journalists in the newsroom.

As a result, the Miami Herald Bot can weed out an impressive number of stories per day. As of this writing in early November, the bot has already produced more than 50 separate stories about various real estate transitions in the Herald’s coverage area.

The same goes for a similar bot run by the Sacramento Bee, which the newsroom has also used to produce very specific stories, such as “How much did it cost to buy a house in West Sacramento, California, last week ?” and “What are the most expensive homes sold in Natomas last week?” In a single day in November, Sac Bee Bot churned out at least 20 separate stories, an impossible clip for a human reporter but just another day on the content wheel for a bot.

Here’s an example of a clunky but readable lede written by Sac Bee Bot: “A house in Roseville that sold for $1.2 million topped the list of the most expensive real estate sales in Roseville last week.”

McClatchy did not respond to a request to talk about the parameters of his AI reporting experience or the number of newspapers using the bot to produce stories. But it’s not the first news organization to explore the benefits of automated journalism, which in theory can free journalists from more mundane tasks – if it doesn’t cost them their jobs.

Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft fired dozens of journalists who maintained the home pages of the MSN website and its Edge browser after the company decided to use software of artificial intelligence to organize the news. “I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI are going to take all our jobs, and here I am – AI has taken my job,” one of the reporters told The Guardian.

Shortly after, Microsoft’s robot confused two mixed-race members of British pop group Little Mix. Worse still, MSN’s remaining human editors had to remove articles from other outlets criticizing Microsoft regarding the Little Mix issue that the automated program kept placing on the homepage.

Fortunately, stories of journalists being replaced by robots have been widely overhyped. But given the dire financial situation that most newsrooms find themselves in, the expansion of robotic journalism and the development of natural language generation is a trend to watch, especially given the number of organizations in press now owned by hedge funds seeking to maximize their profits.

“I think there are a lot of different and quite interesting things we can do with AI, and it ranges from tools that help humans with their reports, to algorithms that tell stories directly from data,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategy initiatives at The Washington Post, said on NPR 1A. “It has nothing to do with a computer taking someone’s job; likewise, just because we have a spell checker doesn’t mean we don’t need editors to proofread our stories.

According to the New York Times, Bloomberg uses a system called Cyborg to help reporters quickly produce company earnings stories each quarter, with up to a third of all stories using some form of automated technology. Guardian Australia has ReporterMate, which helps produce campaign finance stories. Yahoo uses AI-powered technology to create millions of unique sports stories to support its fantasy football business.

Yahoo’s approach is a great example of the audience acquisition opportunity provided by bot reports. Instead of targeting a story to many readers, bots can target many small audiences with very specific stories. In Yahoo’s case, it’s a one-on-one fantasy football story about exactly two people.

The Washington Post launched its Heliograf bot to help cover the 2016 Rio Olympics and has since expanded its reach to include coverage of local elections and high school sports. Last year, the Post announced that it planned to use Heliograf to provide localized, real-time election results for the House, Senate, and presidential race on its politics podcasts.

Yes, you read that right – bots now make audio reports.

NPR’s 1A host Joshua Johnson showed how the technology works in an episode focused on AI reporting. Johnson read several “strange” sentences in an app that erupted the individual sounds of his voice, which were reassembled by a robot to perfectly read an entirely different group of sentences.

“It’s not terrifying to me at all,” Johnson joked.

The Associated Press was among the first to venture into the realm of AI-assisted reporting in 2012 when it partnered with a tech company called Automated Insights.

Wordsmith, the name of the platform, accumulates massive amounts of quantifiable data across verticals dominated by digital information – think financial reporting, real estate and sports. This data is then manipulated by algorithms created by Associated Press reporters to create readable stories, with appropriate adjectives and punctuation.

The partnership was so successful that The Associated Press combined Automated Insights technology with data from Stats Perform to produce automated insights for all NCAA Division I men’s basketball games. So yes, bots are writing basketball previews for the Associated Press, and chances are your newsroom has published at least one or two.

The Associated Press has long said that its automated reports are used in situations it wouldn’t normally trust a reporter, like summaries of minor league baseball games or quarterly earnings reports from lesser companies. known. The same goes for the Washington Post, which has continued to hire hundreds of editors and reporters despite expanding its use of AI-assisted storytelling.

But what happens when bots are deployed by disreputable owners already willing to trade human capital to boost their profits? Unfortunately, I don’t think we need a robot to write this story.

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about digital media trends. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Inquirer of Philadelphia. Contact him at [email protected]