Newspapers have started publishing articles jointly written by robots and humans according to a report written by Tom Horton (not a robot) in the Financial Times (“Rise of the machines extends to news reports” 13 December 2017). Funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative, the Reporters and Data Robots (Radar) with the Press Association and Urbs Media have created software “which inserts localised statistics into stories written by human reporters.”
Articles are being offered in a pilot scheme to editors of 35 regional newspapers and so far such articles have appeared in 20 publications. Radar has a future target of 30,000 monthly stories.
The development has been described as a potential ‘game-changer’ by Toby Granville, editorial development director at Newsquest the nationwide newspaper group who have been quick to publish part automated stories.
But Newsquest has form when it comes to cutting jobs and titles and ‘fat cat’ pay and perks. According to the NUJ: “Newsquest’s chief executive Henry Faure Walker’s pay and perks have passed the £1m mark, but scores of journalists face being made redundant just in time for Christmas. Others have been told their meagre overtime and anti-social hours’ payments will be pared down. Newspapers throughout the group have been told jobs will go and payments for working bank holidays and weekends and mileage rates will be cut. This follows a year of job losses, title closures and cuts which have all taken their toll on staff, as a group-wide stress survey has shown. (NUJ) Reps said the latest round was “potentially hazardous to health – both physically and mentally”. (“Newsquest Christmas cuts & redundancy as boss pockets £1m-plus” NUJ statement 1st December 2017).
All this does not seem to bother Newsquest who refuse to consult the union on a national level, despite it being obvious that all its newspapers are controlled centrally by the group.
The Financial Times reports NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet as describing the software “as a useful tool” adding that: “Ultimately it is the journalist who must check the context and analysis…I cannot see how it could be used to replace journalists. Humans are still required to make ethical decisions on what is published.”
Quite so, but as with the introduction of ‘new technology’ in the 1970’s the questions are who benefits and how is change managed and in whose interests? Today technology advances are rapid and newspapers owners are only too willing to get rid of journalists to cut costs and improve profit margins. Whilst there are no plans for the NUJ to recruit robots, their introduction could pose a further serious threat to jobs and standards in an industry where both have been under attack for many years.
Will the NUJ be running courses on using these robots or, more importantly, perhaps, on how to negotiate with managements about how they are used? If they really are ‘just’ a tool, then we need to know how to make them work for better journalism, rather than as a substitute for properly thought-out material.