Robot news

The title overstates things, but … Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism:

“It actually started with me reading an article by Steven Levy in Wired about algorithms and news content — ‘Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?,” Christer Clerwall tells “My first thought was ‘maybe it doesn’t have to be better — how about ‘a good enough story’?” Sadly, Wired may turn out to be the architect of its own destruction. Because Clerwall, an assistant professor of media and communications at Sweden’s Karlstad University, has found the answer to this question. And it’s yes.

This is the second small study I’ve seen like this. Both have to do with sports copy, which probably means something. What may be promising, however, is that as the algorithms improve this could free up writers from the more basic stories and allow for better storytelling.

Meanwhile, The First News Report on the L.A. Earthquake Was Written by a Robot:

Ken Schwencke, a journalist and programmer for the Los Angeles Times, was jolted awake at 6:25 a.m. on Monday by an earthquake. He rolled out of bed and went straight to his computer, where he found a brief story about the quake already written and waiting in the system. He glanced over the text and hit “publish.” And that’s how the LAT became the first media outlet to report on this morning’s temblor. “I think we had it up within three minutes,” Schwencke told me.

If that sounds faster than humanly possible, it probably is. While the post appeared under Schwencke’s byline, the real author was an algorithm called Quakebot that he developed a little over two years ago. Whenever an alert comes in from the U.S. Geological Survey about an earthquake above a certain size threshold, Quakebot is programmed to extract the relevant data from the USGS report and plug it into a pre-written template. The story goes into the LAT’s content management system, where it awaits review and publication by a human editor.

The copy, which you can read in that story, was basic, to the point and not perfect regarding style, but it shared the pertinent information, apparently within three minutes. What happened afterward was telling. “Quakebot’s post had been updated 71 times by human writers and editors, turning it from the squib above into this in-depth, front-page story.”

This first story, the early morning Quakebot copy, is a first step. It didn’t save the day, or save even a big part of a reporter’s day, but it is the sign of a utility to come, or, rather, a tool that is already here.


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