Minutes after Apple released its record-breaking quarterly earnings this week, the Associated Press published (by way of CNBC, Yahoo, and others) "Apple tops Street 1Q forecasts." It's a story without a byline, or rather, without a human byline — a financial story written and published by an automated system well-versed in the AP Style Guide. The AP implemented the system six months ago and now publishes 3,000 such stories every quarter — and that number is poised to grow.
Quarterly earnings are a necessity for business reporting — and it can be both monotonous and stressful, demanding a combination of accuracy and speed. That's one of the reasons why last summer the AP partnered with Automated Insights to begin automating quarterly earnings reports using their Wordsmith platform.
You wouldn't necessarily know it at first blush. Sure, maybe reading it in the context of this story it's apparent, but otherwise it feels like a pretty standard, if a tad dry, AP news item. The obvious tell doesn't come until the end of an article: "This story was generated by Automated Insights." According to AI's public relations manager James Kotecki, the Wordsmith platform generates millions of articles per week; other partners include Allstate, Comcast, and Yahoo, whose fantasy football reports are automated. Kotecki estimates the company's system can produce 2,000 articles per second if need be.
"I wouldn't expect a good journalist to not be skeptical."
Philana Patterson, an assistant business editor at the AP tasked with implementing the system, tells us there was some skepticism from the staff at first. "I wouldn't expect a good journalist to not be skeptical," she said. Patterson tells us that when the program first began in July, every automated story had a human touch, with errors logged and sent to Automated Insights to make the necessary tweaks. Full automation began in October, when stories "went out to the wire without human intervention." Both the AP and Automated Insights tell us that no jobs have been lost due to the new service. We're also told the automated system is now logging in fewer errors than the human-produced equivalents from years past.
Ten times as many reports every quarter — and no jobs cut
Before this program was implemented, the AP estimates it was doing quarterly earnings coverage for about 300 companies. Now it automates 3,000 such reports each quarter. Of those, 120 will have an added human touch, either by updating the original story or doing a separate follow-up piece. One such company is Apple; as Patterson notes, that automated Apple story freed up reporter Brandon Bailey to focus on this angled, more nuanced report contextualizing the company's earnings along with quotes from Apple executives. Others include Google, Coca-Cola, and American Airlines. 180 more are monitored to see if a follow-up is needed.
Then there are ten companies that aren't automated at all due to the nuance of their reports — companies like Citigroup and Wells Fargo. Patterson says all these lists are re-evaluated and updated every quarter.
Since the partnership began, elements like business descriptions and forward-looking guidance has been added to the platform's skill list. The next step is expansion — more than 1,000 Canadian companies plus a few elsewhere around the world. Patterson also told us the AP is starting to look at other uses outside of earnings reports.
Robots should only be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, no matter how sexy they may be.— Fake AP Stylebook (@FakeAPStylebook) October 27, 2009
So no, computers are not taking journalists' jobs — not yet, at any rate. Instead, they're freeing up writers to think more critically about the bigger picture. "One of the things we really wanted reporters to be able to do was when earnings came out to not have to focus on the initial numbers," said Patterson. "That's the goal, to write smarter pieces and more interesting stories."
This story was generated by a Homo sapiens who really wanted to use this Shutterstock photo as the lead image: