Cecilia Campbell is a Swedish media journalist with over 20 years experience reporting on the news publishing industry internationally. She is the CMO of Swedish tech start-up United Robots, based in Malmö. Her work at United Robots includes advising publishers on how to free up reporter time and drive revenue through newsroom automation. Previously she worked for WAN-IFRA, co-leading the reader revenue group and authoring the 2018 report Engaged Readers Don’t Churn – Retention Lessons for Digital Subcriptions.
Automated or robot journalism is rising in the news world, especially in sports, weather and financial coverage, where structured data is abundant and readily available. Where else can robots be used in the field of journalism? Can we already consume long reads, reportages including storytelling, written by robots?
Robots are most reliable in journalism, when what they write is based on structured data, and that's where I believe the focus should be. The key here is the data – it would be fantastic to set up robots to deliver routine reporting around e g political processes and decision making at local, regional and national level – but often the data is not structured enough to be used, e g meeting minutes may be in the form of free text in PDFs. I think long reads and reportages are exactly what journalists should be doing when their time has been freed up by robots covering the routine, predictable reporting.
You are working for the Swedish tech company “United Robots”. Who are your clients and what are you doing for them?
Our clients are news publishers in Europe and North America (including nearly all news media groups in Sweden). We provide them with automatically generated articles on topics like sports, home sales, new company registrations, traffic updates and weather. Most of our clients publish the articles (which we often enrich with photos, maps, links etc) automatically to their sites, apps and as push notifications. So – our robots act as an automated part of the publisher's newsdesk.
AI is a controversial topic, thus, the eternal dispute concerning computer systems in newsroom is: Do journalists really benefit from the reduced workload or will they lose their jobs in just a few years?
Automation is not a threat to journalism – the threat comes from platforms, lack of advertising revenue, diminishing readership etc. Going forward publishers will need to focus resources even more where they have the most positive impact on the business and the journalism. In other words: Your well educated reporters need to be creating the quality journalism that readers will pay for, not basic routine reporting, which readers expect, but which can be automated.
We have published some testimonials from Swedish reporters who have robots as colleagues: https://www.unitedrobots.ai/for-newsrooms/knowledge/journalists-with-robot-experience-not-a-threat
Not everything that is technically possible is socially acceptable. Does the robot journalism have ethical standards? Or rather: What should journalists, who are using AI in newsrooms, keep in mind?
The robots do not have ethical standards per se. The standards our robots deliver come from two places: a) the data - if the data is correct, the journalism is correct and b) the publishers' editorial standards – just like with reporters, robots only write stories that adhere to these standards (we build this into the process for each publisher). Robots using a data-to-text methodology do not make stories up – the only possible errors happen when there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the data. (Robots creating writing based on a text-to-text machine learning method is a different story. This is not our field. For more info see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/08/robot-wrote-this-article-gpt-3
Robot journalism sounds like future but it is the present. How will newsrooms look in ten or twenty years?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Remember, relatively few newsrooms use any robot journalism today, so there is a long way to go in general adaptation. I think what will happen is that, as data becomes better structured and more readily accessible (IF indeed that happens), we'll see robots surfacing a lot of stories in data that previously were never found - whether the robots then write the article or human reporters do. Robot journalism will mean the capacity to hold the powers that be accountable will increase in my view.