Business journalism after the robot invasion

by August 18, 2014

This summer the Associated Press began deploying computers rather than people to write quarterly corporate earnings stories. This robotic journalism is consistently competent. Even though skillful human reporters can still produce better work, the bots have a compelling advantage: they’re exceptionally fast. They can transform news releases into news without even the minimal time lag required by experienced journalists. And the bots are surely programmed for the correct use of AP style, that longtime bane of our undergraduate journalism students.

NAO Robot writing on a pad

AP is combining the technology from Automated Insights and Zacks Investment Research, not this guy. Photo: NAO Robot

For business journalism professors returning to campus for the new semester, the AP’s shift is yet another reason to continue revamping curricula. It’s no longer enough to teach students to produce the kinds of formulaic breaking business news stories that are now being written by computers (and, to be honest, have always read as if they were). Our graduates need to become the masters, not the rivals, of digital technology. They need deftness with databases and other powerful digital tools.

The potential of “data journalism” is already on display at Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, and the New York Times’ The Upshot, though these promising efforts focus more on politics than business. Where I teach, the Reynolds School of Journalism at University of Nevada, Reno, I’ve created a new course on data journalism, and the school is conducting a national search for a new tenure-track professor in the subject. And while data is trendy now in newsrooms as well as academia, I believe that we need to revitalize old-fashioned investigative reporting as well. The most revealing reporting still comes from cultivating human sources rather than crunching databases.

We also need to emphasize teaching our students what robots can’t do: great storytelling. At UNR I’ve created a new course on Narrative: The Art of Storytelling that introduces students to the techniques used in forms such as New Yorker magazine articles and documentary films and even novels and classic Hollywood screenplays. While this material might not at first seem like the traditional training for business reporters, I think it’s perhaps the most valuable thing they can learn.