It’s been a year since The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to spit out around 300 short reports and alerts on the Rio Olympics. Since then, it’s used Heliograf to cover congressional and gubernatorial races on Election Day and D.C.-area high school football games, producing stories like this one and tweets like this:
Landon beat Whitman 34-0; https://t.co/V6zVPi7a9O @LandonSports @koachkuhn
— WashPost HS Sports (@WashPostHS) September 2, 2017
The Associated Press has used robots to automate earnings coverage, while USA Today has used video software to create short videos. But media executives are more excited about AI’s potential to go beyond rote reporting. Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Post, shared what the paper has learned so far from robo reporting and what it’s still trying to figure out.
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Robo reporting can expand the audience
In its first year, the Post has produced around 850 articles using Heliograf. That included 500 articles around the election that generated more than 500,000 clicks — not a ton in the scheme of things, but most of these were stories the Post wasn’t going to dedicate staff to anyway. For the 2012 election, for example, the Post did just 15 percent of what it generated in 2016.
Robots can help reporters
Media outlets using AI say it’s meant to enable journalists to do more high-value work, not take their jobs. The AP estimated that it’s freed up 20 percent of reporters’ time spent covering corporate earnings and that AI is also moving the needle on accuracy. “In the case of automated financial news coverage by AP, the error rate in the copy decreased even as the volume of the output increased more than tenfold,” said Francesco Marconi, AP’s strategy manager and AI co-lead.
The Post is also trying to figure out how to use Heliograf to help its journalists with substantive reporting. During the election, it used Heliograf to alert the newsroom when election results started trending in an unexpected direction, giving reporters lead time to thoroughly cover the news. Gilbert wants Heliograf to play a more ambitious role in the next election. He also sees the potential for Heliograf to do legwork for reporters in other ways, like spotting trends in financial and other big data sets. “We think we can help people find interesting stories,” he said. Heliograf also can be deployed to update ongoing stories like weather events in real time, providing a service to readers.
AI has B2B applications
All this goes back to the ad-supported — and stressed — pageview model of journalism. Publishers need to get readers or other groups to pay to support their business models. “Right now, automated journalism is about producing volume. Ultimately, media companies will have to figure out how to go beyond the pageview,” said Seth Lewis, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon whose focuses include the rise of AI in media. The Post has had conversations about what AI could do that has a business-to-business application, but hasn’t taken the idea further, Gilbert said. “It has widespread utility that goes beyond individual news consumers. [The target] can also be people interested in very specific things,” he said.
Jury’s out on local news impact …
Robo reporting can serve a lot of niche audiences that, added up, can increase a news outlet’s reach in a meaningful way. That’s the thinking behind the local football coverage. It’s unclear how that approach can be scaled to cover local communities, where the digital news model has fallen short. Heliograf can be used to digest data like standardized test scores and crime stats; covering a zoning board meeting is another matter. And AI isn’t being used beyond big news organizations, Lewis pointed out. “There’s such a huge gap between the AI haves and have-nots. We are many years away from these things being implemented at the local level.”
… and the economic benefits
Right now, the Post can count the stories and pageviews that Heliograf generated. Quantifying its impact on how much time it gives reporters to do other work and the value of that work is harder. It’s also hard to quantify how much engagement, ad revenue and subscriptions can be attributed to those robo-reported stories. (On the resource side, now that it’s built, Heliograf has about five people dedicated to it, not including editors that it borrows to help figure out how to apply it.) “We’re still starting to figure out what the economic impact’s going to be, when it makes sense to automate,” Gilbert said.