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PAINTER: Are robots in the future for newspapers?

• Aug 8, 2016 at 1:00 PM

The story caught my attention.

The Associated Press, the worldwide news-gathering organization used by most daily newspapers, including the Grand Haven Tribune, is now using “robot journalism” in its coverage of minor league baseball games.

According to a story written by Will Oremus of Slate online service, AP has partnered with the tech company of Automated Insights to produce minor league baseball recaps. That company uses a program called Wordsmth to turn data into written news stories.

Oremus said the stories are being produced by specially designed algorithms (a way computers process data) to write minor league recaps. Those recaps are available for newspapers and minor league teams’ websites.

AP said that it hasn’t eliminated any reporting jobs in its venture with Automated Insights. AP has added an “automation editor,” according to Oremus.

Automating some stories frees up time for reporters to write more in-depth news stories, according to AP officials.

It turns out that the Associated Press has been using automated stories since 2015 when it started using the automated process for its business earnings reports.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of robots writing stories? According to an article in mediashift.org written by Damian Radcliffe, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, the advantages are that algorithms can create news stories quicker and cheaper than reporters. He also said that machines don’t make the same mistake twice and that automated journalism could revolutionize the industry.

As for the disadvantage, Oremus said that robot-generated stories are more suited for business reports and sports stories. He also said that it takes time and money to train robots and that computer-generated stories tend to be boring.

Nevertheless, some journalism industry officials believe that robot journalism has a bright future. Some of the larger daily newspapers have begun to study using robot journalism.

According to a 2014 report by Gigacom, The Guardian, a newspaper published in Great Britain, had been working on an experimental version of printed newspaper generated by algorithms. I don’t know the outcome of that experiment, but it would be interesting to know how readers felt about a newspaper completely produced by robots.

While robots are beginning to make their mark in journalism, I don’t believe robots will be replacing editors and reporters of daily newspapers anytime soon. There is something about having humans produce a local newspaper that makes it more relevant. At small newspapers like the Grand Haven Tribune, publishers, editors and reporters live in the community in which they work. They are impacted by the stories that they produce.

Certainly robots have impacted our lives. I worked in an automobile plant in which we had to lift heavy parts. I would come home from work so sore and tired that I just wanted to collapse on the couch. Now robots do the heavy lifting.

Robots could be a way of life in the newspaper business. As in other industries, such as the medical field, robots can be an effective tool.

I am just amazed at how much journalism has advanced through the years. I began my career in the 1970s. In my first reporting job, we were pounding out (literally) on manual typewriters in which the keys would get stuck if you tried to type too fast. We also developed film in a darkroom in which we had to take film out of a camera and place the film on a spool in the dark. It took some practice to successfully develop film.

So much has changed through the years. When we started using computers to write stories, I thought newspapers had reached the highest level of advancement. Toward the end of my career, newspaper technology had advanced even further from the time I started my career. We began designing pages on a computer and photographs are uploaded to computers. No more darkrooms.

Now we have robot journalism looming in the future. What’s next?

Please Matt DeYoung and Mark Brooky: Don’t put me out to pasture for a robot — at least not yet.

— By Len Painter, Tribune human community columnist

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