Invasion of the Robo-Reporters

Aug. 23, 2006 — -- The day that has long struck fear in the hearts of journalists has arrived, at least in one newsroom.

At business news provider Thomson Financial, computers have begun to replace reporters.

Thomson has used computers to generate stories on earnings reports since March. How do they do it? Thomson, with the help of programmers UpTick Data, outfitted its computers with software that senses when a significant change occurs in its database of earnings estimates.

When the earnings estimates of a company jump up or drop down, a robo-reporter kicks into gear and spits out a story highlighting the company's new earnings forecast.

Average writing time equals 0.3 seconds, faster than most living, breathing journalists can log on to their computers.

Don't assume speedy output makes for shoddy articles. According to Andrew Meagher, Thomson Financial's director of content development, the computer-crafted reports consist of more than a jumble of numbers and monosyllabic words.

"The computers generate text from a rich thesaurus. There are substantial variants. They don't just say 'This has gone up and this has gone down.' They use all sorts of adjectives," said Meagher.

Indeed, the stories exhibit an impressive vocabulary, considering their author and output time. (An August 12 piece on online image provider Jupitermedia used the term "recalibration.")

But as any reader can tell and Meagher admits, the computer-generated pieces lack the color and description that distinguishes reporting from fact-regurgitating. That's good news for those who make their living telling stories.

"We're providing these articles for people who deal in fact. We don't want to make them too colorful. We want to make them consistent. We rely on journalists to write the color and do the interpretation and put things in context. We don't think that's the role of the computer," said Meagher.

So why have computers write stories at all? One, speed. Two, as Meagher explained, "We would rather have our journalists spend their time creating insight than writing these stories, which is a routine and mundane task."

The financial news service is so pleased with the efficiency of the story-writing software that it will soon assign computers to additional beats, including mergers and acquisitions and mutual funds. The company also plans to expand its human staff.

Thomson is not the only company taking advantage of computer-generated reporting. Reuters has a similar program in place. Other news services, such as Bloomberg, remain firm on using journalists for all stories.

At second glance, robo-reporters may not spell doomsday for their real-life counterparts. But to those writers who still cower at the thought of computers chasing them out of work, Meagher offered some comfort.

"A computer might take part of your job, but hopefully it's the boring part that you don't enjoy doing."