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Robot reporters find their newsroom niche

Published on 7th March 2018

What if I told you that the reports you read about your kid’s high school football game every week were actually bot-written stories? Or that you were provided with up-to-date coverage on the races for all 50 states on Election Day (2016) by artificial intelligence technology? Does it make you wonder, well, where are the journalists?

This anxiety that robots are threatening to take over human jobs is understandable in light of so many companies’ progress in robotics and artificial intelligence, which among other things, in this era includes driverless cars, surgical robots, apparently, “robot journalists.”

Yet experts say that artificial intelligence leaves plenty of room for humans.

The Washington Post is one example. Its newsroom has successfully expanded its coverage with Heliograf, an automated storytelling system. Developed in-house, Heliograf has benefited both readers and journalists alike, its advocates say.

The “bot” was not designed to replace human labor, but rather to help make journalists’ life better and easier.

A 2013 University of Oxford study that showed nearly half of all jobs in the United States are at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years might convince you otherwise.

But let’s take the ATM, for example. Panic took over people that ATMs would take over the jobs of bank tellers. When actually, these machines simply freed humans from mind-numbing work like counting your 20s every time you needed to make a withdrawal. Now more humans work as bank tellers and ATMs continue to give us the luxury of making withdrawals 24/7 without even having to get out of our car.

Automated storytelling
Heliograf made its debut in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where it auto-populated short multi-sentence updates for readers on Twitter at @WPOlympicsbot. This allowed The Post’s sports staff to avoid having to spend countless hours manually publishing event results.

“Heliograf is a combination of machine-generated learning and natural language processing. It takes data piece and it outputs stories,” said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post. “Like a narrative that a human might write, but instead of outputting a single story, it can output hundreds of stories.”

Through the Twitter updates, Heliograf provided readers with a daily schedule of the Olympics’ events, results for medal events, top medal tallies, and alerts 15 minutes before the start of a medal event. These kind of numeric information, like how fast someone is, how many points did they earn, how far did they travel, came from various different services that The Post connected to Heliograf, usually by API or application protocol interface.

“We get some data from the Associated Press, some data from stats.com. It’s a way of ingesting information into the system,” Gilbert said.

The Post continued using its artificial intelligence technology in the 2016 election. The newspaper provided readers with coverage and real-time results on 435 House, 34 Senate, and 12 gubernatorial races across the country.

Expanding its use of Heliograf a year later, Gilbert and Jeff Dooley, The Post’s high school sports editor, sat down and discussed the different kind of stories that their human reporters had written and broke down the exact information in the stories that Heliograf or a similar system could have identified.

Typically, in a given weekend, The Post is able to send out five or so human reporters to cover five high-profile games that have interesting story lines. If Dooley had the resources, he would cover every high school game.

“Each game matters to someone,” Gilbert said. “But realistically we cannot cover every game. So if we can have Heliograf write a story about a game that otherwise would go uncovered, then that’s a small audience, but an audience that gets the journalism that they want.”

Similar to the way Heliograf obtained the information about the Olympics, The Post has a web portal, also built in-house, that high school coaches enter information into. Think of it as a cloud if you will. Data gets stored in the cloud, Heliograf which also effectively lives in the cloud, accesses that information, analyses it, writes the story and then distributes the story as The Post tells it to.

“It is much more like Gmail, it’s just a system that you access and interact with through your web browser,” Gilbert said. “It’s a little bit on how you define these things, but all bots are software.”

Though The Post has begun to publish what are essentially “bot-written articles,” their quality in journalism has not changed.

“We wouldn’t knowingly publish something that wasn’t up to our quality standards, or wasn’t up to our standards around truth and accuracy,” said Gilbert. “It doesn’t matter if a human writes it or Heliograf writes it, it has to meet our editorial standards.”

The Post also tries to be transparent with the stories that its artificial intelligence generated.

If you’re curious as to whether the story you are reading was produced by Heliograf or written by one of their human reporters, at the bottom of a story you will find, “This story may be updated if more information becomes available. It is powered by Heliograf, The Post’s artificial intelligence system.”  Here is an example of how a story produced by Heliograf might look.

The real key for The Washington Post is to use Heliograf to service as many readers as possible and do the kinds of stories that humans don’t want to do, to free them up to do the stories only humans can do.

“Do I think that robots are going to come for our jobs? Not necessarily,” Gilbert said. “Let’s identify the things that are uninteresting and that humans don’t want to do - have machines do that - and free the humans up to do the much more interesting work, that’s the goal.”

Gilbert says Heliograf has received a warm welcome from reporters at The Post, reporters who have looked at their job and said, “There is something that I have to do, that I think a machine could do better, and I want Heliograf to do that so I can do the kinds of stories that I want to do.”

The Post’s ties to Amazon
This business mentality may have come when Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought The Post in 2013.

In an interview with The New York Times, executives said Bezos is encouraging The Post to try new approaches.

“The humans who are guiding the system (Heliograf) are developers in our editorial team that improve it as we see opportunities,” said Gilbert. “For the Rio Olympics, we built an echo integration so that you could ask (Amazon) Alexa for the status of the 2016 election as it related to polls and primaries.”

Molly Gannon, communications manager at The Post, says the team talks with Bezos regularly, but he is not involved in day-to-day product development. In other words, Heliograf was not Bezos’ doing.

Like integrating Heliograf with Alexa, The Post’s first collaboration with Amazon combined its content with products built by Amazon by launching an app exclusively for Amazon Fire owners.

In a conversation at the Business Insider Ignition conference in New York, Bezos mentioned that ultimately his goal is to rework The Post into something that expands beyond the local daily newspaper, into one that reaches across borders.

“We think that The Post plays a valuable role in democracy and part of that is covering all kinds of communities,” Gilbert said. “For example, by being able to cover election results from all variety of different locations, more than we could realistically send reporters, that has a benefit -- increasing the size of our audience and furthers our role in this democracy.”

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