On one level we can understand the teeth-gnashing that followed the Associated Press’ announcement that it plans to start using robots to write the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories. Robots seem to bring out the Luddite in all of us. What we can’t understand is why anyone outside of a few shop stewards should want to preserve the jobs that will invariably be lost to this new kind of automation.
Actually, the AP says no jobs will be eliminated. “This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs,” wrote Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor, on the AP blog. You can bet that robots are going to eliminate reporting jobs in the future, though, just like linotype machines replaced human typesetters and computer pagination replaced paste-up jobs. It’s called efficiency, and job loss is one of the distasteful consequences.
We’d suggest that much of the labor impact will actually be felt overseas, which is where the menial jobs have already migrated. Robo-journalists in India and the Philippines will need to improve their skills to continue to get work from U.S. and European publishers, and journalists in home offices will need to up their games as well. That’s a good thing.
What isn’t good is preserving jobs that eat up time and editors’ attention. In one of our recent assignments we worked with a technology news site that employs a small staff of seasoned journalists but that gets most of its content from an offshore body shop that rewrites press releases and news from other websites. The reporters who write this chum make about five cents a word, and in our view they’re overpaid.
Stories come in full of grammatical and usage errors, and many are missing basic facts or explanations. Professional editors spend hours each day fixing these mistakes and trying to educate the writers, which is a fool’s errand because most of them don’t last more than a few months on the job anyway. These tasks can now be automated, and many of them will be. The result will be at a better quality of work for everyone involved.
Will the stories that robots produce be as good as those that humans could write? Probably not, but it’s the market’s job to judge that. The only thing that’s certain is that the quality of robotic journalism will only improve over time. The human journalists who embrace this trend will learn to use their silicon sidekicks as research associates and fact-checkers. Robotics should ultimately make journalism a much more rewarding profession, but it will cost jobs.
Take heart in the fact that newsrooms won’t be hit nearly as hard as many other workplaces. “The factory of the future will have only two employees: a man and a dog,” said Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk. “The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
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