When the earth rumbles during the night in California with one of the area’s regular earthquakes, Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Schwencke doesn’t have to rush to file a story any more.
That’s because his newspaper has a Quakebot, which writes up a quick, first version of the story with basic details, like the strength of the temblor.
The first such reports have only just been released to the public and, for some readers, no difference is readily apparent. In the Californian case, the computer picked up information made available online from the US Geological Survey.
It only takes seconds for the computer to drop the data into a template and release it to the newspaper’s readers.
“This lends itself anywhere where you use the same text building blocks and it’s only the data that changes,” says Berlin-based social media expert Frederik Fischer.
He says writing software is slowly going to become a normal part of the media landscape. After all, journalism has long made use of automated reporting in niche areas such as weather, stock markets and sports.
US firm Narrative Science is one of the providers of such services, creating documents from data.
US magazine Forbes already uses its services for its financial reports. In Germany, Stuttgart-based company Aexea also promises to create high-quality documents with its “news machine.”
Thus, during a basketball game, the computer wouldn’t just look at the point total, but also at past game reports.
“It could look at whether the top scorer had disappointed,” says prototype designer Frank Feulner.
The company says it could even generate specific articles for fans of certain teams or players without too much trouble.
Feulner says he has already received feelers from publishing companies. A study by the Swedish university Karlstad found that computer-generated news was more boring to read, but not to the extent that readers noticed it was not written by a human.
That means the computers might one day take some hard work off human reporters’ hands – or even replace them.
After all, Quakebot never gets tired and never takes vacation. “If technology will help them to see savings, then they’ll do it,” says Fischer about the publishers.
Still, there are limits to the technology. Quakebot can neither take a picture of the destruction, ask for expert opinions or seek out witness reports.
A computer programme would certainly never have uncovered the Watergate scandal.
“It’s nonsense that a robot will fill up the newspaper,” says Fischer. Computer linguist Manfred Stede from Germany’s Potsdam University agrees.
“The added value of journalism is that it assesses facts and doesn’t just pass them along.”
Schwencke, who also created Quakebot, still checks his robot’s output before publishing it. He told online magazine Slate that, when he was shaken out of bed by an earthquake one morning, the story was already waiting for him at his computer. But it was Schwencke who pushed the button and sent the story out.