Robots didn’t write <i>this</i> news story

Marketplace Staff Oct 4, 2006

BOB MOON: Having a computer that self-destructs if you’re suspected of being a software pirate … Eh, that may be the least of our worries.

We’ve been hearing stories for a long time about how computers are taking over the world — or at least taking over a lot of menial tasks. But can you imagine journalists under attack by a fleet of news-writing robots? No need to imagine.

The business information service Thomson Financial has developed a software program that can compile corporate earnings data and write short, print articles all by itself . . . sans humans. We asked one of our flesh-and-blood reporters, Sean Cole, to investigate:

SEAN COLE: And I have a little friend here who’s going to help me with this story. Ready?

COMPUTER VOICE: Let’s do it.

OK. Frequently asked questions about Thomson Financial’s news-writing software program.

COMPUTER VOICE: Will the software replace human journalists entirely?

No. But that hasn’t prevented human journalists from worrying about it — including me.

COLE: Are you trying to put me out of a job?

ANDREW MEAGHER: We’re trying to free your time so you can do more interesting things, like sit here and talk to me. Which if that’s your level of interesting things, it’s a sad indictment on you.

Andrew Meagher is director of content development for Thomson Financial. He walked me through the program a little bit in his office in downtown New York. The platform looks like a cross between a stock ticker and a print wire service . . . ’cause that’s basically what it is.

COMPUTER VOICE: How does the program work?

I was getting to that. Essentially, it’s hooked up to a database filled with financial analyst numbers: how various company’s are doing, how they’re likely to do down the road. The program tracks that data and then spits out an article when the projections for a given company change.

MEAGHER: So here we have American Express: “Currently, Wall Street analysts are anticipating profits for the third quarter ending in September for Amex will range from 68 cents to 79 cents per share. With an estimated mean of 75 cents per share.”

COLE: That’s actually understandable. And you’re telling me that a computer wrote that?

MEAGHER: Yup, a computer wrote it entirely.

The program can also do a cogent write-through of a company’s quarterly earnings, the kind of quick blurb you might read in the business page of your local newspaper.

COMPUTER VOICE: Are the articles actually going to end up in my local newspaper?

Probably not. They’re going directly to Thomson’s clients: retail advisors, investment managers. . . . Which I have to say feels even more threatening. But Meagher says no, no, no, this is helping journalists by automating one of dullest parts of the job.

MEAGHER: A journalist would have to sit there and pick up the press release. go into the database, check what the comparisons are, and write what is a fairly vanilla-type story.

COLE: And that is . . . is drudgery.

MEAGHER: Exactly.

COLE: But computers like drudgery.

MEAGHER: Computers are very good at drudgery. And if they can be good at it, they can do it accurately, faster, and free up time for non-drudgery, everyone benefits.

Non-drudgery means finding out why the analysts projections changed. Why a company performed the way it did. Which is what financial reporters should be doing, Meagher says. And what Thomson’s own staff of 400-or-so human reporters would like to do more of.

MEAGHER: We say to them, “You know, what would you like to be doing? And they have all these fantastic ideas but “I can’t do it now because I’m just bogged down doing this stuff.”

And Meagher says Thomson’s reporters are also reading the robot-written articles and using them as fodder for their own more in-depth, contextual stories.

COMPUTER VOICE: But is Thomson laying off reporters due to the new program?

No, actually, they’re hiring reporters at the moment.

COMPUTER VOICE: Did you leave them your resume?

Uhh, no.

COMPUTER VOICE: Well, you should have.

All right, all right.

COMPUTER VOICE: I mean, how much are you earning in public radio?

Knock it off! Anyway, according to Meagher, the only way the news-writing program will affect journalists is by making their lives easier. It’s just like any piece of software, he says, or like computers themselves. More evolution than revolution.

COMPUTER VOICE: Does the program have a name?

I asked Meagher that question.

MEAGHER: No, not specifically.

COLE: Can I suggest some?


COLE: What about Newsbot?

MEAGHER: Ah, it’s already out there.

COLE: I thought I was being really original. What about Newsborg? Newsdroid!

MEAGHER: Newsdroid. We’ll work on it for you.

Yeah. I guess I should just stick to reporting.

COMPUTER VOICE: I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace. . . .

Yeah, I’m supposed to say that actually. You know . . .

COMPUTER VOICE: Ha! Ha! The computers have taken over!

Yeah, very funny, all right, look, could you just . . . COMPUTER VOICE: Bow before me fallible human drone!Look, do the words control-alt-delete mean anything to you?

COMPUTER VOICE: You are now my slave!

What about Apple-option-escape? You know, I do all the leg work . . .

COMPUTER VOICE: Take it easy, monkey boy.

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