Google yesterday announced an $800,000 project with the UK’s Press Association news agency, in which PA will develop ‘robot reporters’ that will write 30,000 articles a month for local newspapers.
That Orwellian piece of news got me thinking about local journalism and whether an algorithm, let loose in council databases, really can replace the reporter. Is it good for news journalism, is it good for reporters and what effect could it have on the role local papers play as a check and balance on local democracy?
My first contact with local journalism was when I did some work experience on a local weekly newspaper in the UK in the summer holiday of 1977 working with reporters and photographers. In many ways it was the age of the dinosaur; papers then were produced with huge production inefficiencies and the printing end of the operation was a tough closed shop with endemic restrictive practices and over-manning. But the local paper, as it hit the street, did have the effect of keeping public authorities honest and often exposed them if they weren’t.
The newspaper office of the ‘70s had that heavy stationery-cigarette combination smell created by stacks of newspapers, copy pads, spikes, brimming ashtrays, wastepaper baskets and rancid coffee cups. It was a world that hadn’t changed much since the 1920s – all reporters used shorthand, clattered away on manual typewriters and phoned-in copy (stories) from red phone boxes on street corners.
Fierce news editors demanded the facts and wielded a ‘blue pencil’, striking out comment or sloppy writing: words like ‘recently’, ‘quite’, ‘very’, and ‘big’ were outlawed. Did the story answer the where, when, what, why and how? If not – go away and do it again.
There were stacks of local and county council committee papers that reporters had to read and mark up to ensure a good story wasn’t missed – and they attended the meetings, known as ‘night jobs’, compensated for by an expense allowance of a quid or so for a pie and a pint for your evening meal.
Story tips came from indiscrete coppers, court ushers, friendly council officers and from blokes in pubs. There was a weekly duty list for court reporting, ensuring all courts were covered or at least the charge sheet was collected and scanned for important cases.
Parcels of news stories marked ‘Urgent, useless if delayed’ were taken to the bus station and given to a driver who delivered it by bus to a neighbouring town. A messenger would meet the bus and deliver the parcel to the print works where a team of compositors would re-type the reporters’ stories into a type-setting machine.
Compositors cut, waxed and pasted paper columns of type onto a page layout, just like cutting an article out of a newspaper and gluing it into scrapbook. Printing plates were made from these layouts and fitted to an ancient Goss web-offset printing press, which thundered away producing the following morning’s paper.
These inefficient ‘dinosaur’ newspapers and human news reporters frequently produced exclusive, investigative breaking news about ‘rotten boroughs’, often picked up by national papers, radio and TV news. The result was that a staff of half a dozen journalists often delivered a big helping of accountability for those in power locally.
And today, what of those newspapers in the summer of 2017 – if they haven’t already closed? On the positive side, the operations are far more efficient from a production point of view – email and shared drives are clearly more efficient than putting news stories on a bus…. There’s less paper and no ashtrays in the office and fewer reporters who rarely leave their desks. That reduced staff have to fill paper and web editions, copy is transmitted in milliseconds, mobile phones that aid the job of reporters and photographers, citizen journalists and bloggers.
Those local papers that have survived can’t spare reporters to go to council meetings or read the committee papers and there’s no court reporting. There’s less time to dig around and tease out a really strong story, while press releases are being copied and pasted, unedited, into papers to fill more white space. Great for the PR company writing press releases, but not great for an independent press. Ironically, the original Google/PA roboreporter announcement contained a typo in the first line (yes, really) – which is faithfully reproduced in many news stories on the topic. QED.
Google’s robot reporters project – in their words – ‘supports journalism’, but not journalists (my words). In the final analysis, though, churning out 30,000 stories a month is less of a news operation and more intended to net more readers for the new content, alongside which Google can place its paid-for ads. Follow the money…
The result of automation will be fewer reporters, fewer investigative, exclusive splashes on sharp practice in public organisations and those in authority are less likely to be held accountable. The local newspaper – paper and web – becomes an increasingly endangered species as their output is automated and quality diminished. The ‘food chain’ of stories from local news teams through to the national media has all but ceased.
And while the internet has brought information to billions of people, a team of Google-sponsored robot reporters isn’t going to be enough to provide sufficient checks and balances on democracy locally, or even nationally. Because even robots require someone to create real news stories and content in the first place before they can ‘scrape’ it and pass it on.
News isn’t so much being suppressed, it’s not even being created. As a result, there’s never been a better time to be a malevolent or incompetent politician, con man, dodgy businessman, criminal or corrupt public official.
Photo credits: Typewriter by Ian Livesey
Goss Printing press: By Unknown (Life time: Unknown.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons