The Robot as Reporter

I look forward to meeting many staff members at the Los Angeles Times when I begin my fellowship on June 1. But one reporter is going to be especially hard to get to know, or invite to lunch. It’s actually not a person but a programmed algorithm known as Quakebot.

Quakebot was developed at the Times by Ken Schwencke, a real person. It utilizes information from the U.S. Geological Survey to quickly create stories about earthquakes, a common enough occurrence in California to where such a program would be useful. I experienced Quakebot’s handiwork this past weekend following a brief jolting that occurred Saturday morning. The L.A. Now section of the Times published Quakebot’s story about 20 minutes after the shaking had stopped.

image of automated reporting example by Quakebot
An example of Quakebot’s reporting skills. Nice work!

Quakebot obviously aspires to a no-nonsense school of reporting. The posting offered a nothing-but-the facts type of lede that gave readers, in a 20-word paragraph, the “what” and “when” of the story, and an attribution. Bravo!

Schwencke has also developed a similar automated reporting program for the Times’ Homicide Report.

These types of programs are gaining traction in journalism circles, especially in the world of sports reporting. The Associated Press announced this spring that it would use Wordsmith to generate sports game stories. Wordsmith, on its website, promises to turn “big data into narrative reports” by spotting patterns in the information. If this sounds a lot like what the human variety of sports reporter does, that’s right. Automated reporting programs can craft a decent sports game story in the time it takes a human sports writer to fetch a post-game donut. And these computer programs don’t require costly health care, or submit expense reports.

When I first heard of these types of automated reporting programs about a decade ago, I laughed at the idea than robots could replace people as reporters. As I read the serviceable report by Quakebot of last weekend’s earthquake, the idea is not so easily dismissed. Artificial intelligence has made great strides in recent years. The computer Watson killed on “Jeopardy!” not too long ago. And the folks at Wordsmith have added some sophisticated stylings to their program so that its reports don’t sound so, well, robotic.

With reporter jobs already threatened in many newsrooms, now comes news of another  potential risk: losing your job to a machine. This is one trend I will watch closely when I take my turn at L.A. Now, where the goal is to generate concise breaking news stories and upload them quickly to the Times website.  If robots are going to begin a takeover of the modern newsroom, the breaking news department will be the first line of assault.

The Interns and Me

I spoke this week with Tracy Boucher, Director of New Development at the Los Angeles Times, to map out goals and assignments for my Back in the Newsroom Fellowship that begins June 1. Boucher wears many hats at the Times, including handling their award submissions. She is also in charge of their internship program.  I’m being grouped along with this summer’s Times interns, a supercharged, impressive group of students from some distinguished U.S. colleges, including Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia. I’ll be the oldest guy in the group, by far, so this aspect of the program should provide some lighthearted moments for me and them. And a great learning experience too, I imagine.

This alignment with the interns also brings me full circle, as I was a Berkeley journalism student with an internship in the Times’ San Francisco bureau in the mid-1980’s. I had a grand time and wrote many stories, including this one about the escape of two patas monkeys from the San Francisco Zoo. I also stayed on in the bureau for several months after the internship ended in a full-time, non-permanent reporting role before taking a staff writer job at the now defunct Santa Monica Outlook. Yes, I’ve closed a few papers in my time.

I found the list of this summer’s interns illuminating as it shows the breadth of newsroom opportunities for digital age journalists. While some students are assigned to traditional sections such as news, business, and arts and entertainment, others will be interning at more exotic-sounding desks such as “visual journalism” and “visualization and data.”

L.A. Now is really California Now.
L.A. Now is really California Now.

I’ve been assigned to L.A. Now, an online section with breaking news about California. I’m excited about the placement. The blog reinforces the digital-first mentality that I’d like to instill in my Corsair students. Boucher explained that items on L.A. Now are sometimes online only, as they lose their news value by the time the print edition goes to press. Or if L.A. Now items are presented in print, such as this week’s oil spill in Santa Barbara, it will be written about in a more thoughtful way in the print product. The Times assumes that readers already know the basic news from digital sources and are looking for more analysis in the newspaper.

Is The Right to be Forgotten All Wrong?

As the faculty adviser to the Corsair newspaper at Santa Monica College, I received a request this weekend from a woman who sounded pretty desperate. An article published online at the Corsair four years ago included background information about her that she no longer wanted public. “This issue has recently affected me in a profound way and I want to remove this once and for all,” she wrote.

On a human level, I felt her pain. Who wouldn’t mind erasing some untidy bits of personal history?

But then the journalism professor took center stage and I was outraged. The story was accurate and the information hardly offensive. The story was already published.  To remove it now to suit someone’s whim went against all my journalism training and beliefs.

The Corsair staff explored the issue during class today. It made for a lively ethical discussion of a growing controversy in digital publishing: The Right to be Forgotten. This emerging digital era right was legitimized by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2014 that gave European Union citizens the right to wave a wand over their digital pasts and make them go away. That shoplifting conviction from five years ago reported on by your local online news site? Delisted by Google, as in it never happened. Since the ruling, Google has fielded up to 750,000 requests for specific items to be delisted from its search database.

No such right to be forgotten exists in the U.S. because, well, we are of tougher moral fiber, and believe we need to confront our sordid past lives and carry their weight around forever.

It’s a common belief that your past lives forever on the Internet, a warning to those who post unflattering images and Tweets that often come back to bite them. Doh! The truth is that the digital past endures because of Google alone. Almost all internet searches start with Google.

Digital archives are more ephemeral than people realize. The Internet is littered with dead links and missing pages. And unlike printed media, which exists in a tangible form, publishers can make digital content disappear when they want, such as the revelation last year that BuzzFeed removed more than 4,000 posts from its early existence that weren’t up to its current editorial standards. A great New Yorker article detailed just how much digital publishing is disappearing, highlighting the efforts of  Brewster Kahle and San Francisco’s Wayback Machine to preserve it before those bytes of information flitter away.

The Wayback Machine is a valuable resource, but it’s not nearly as handy as researching information using Google. Which means that the future of digital archives lies with Google, not publishers.  If Google cuts off links to content, it’s as good as dead to the world.

The woman who contacted me about a past online article in the Corsair really had a beef with Google. She said that every time she entered her name in Google, the Corsair article was the first thing that came up. And she didn’t like it.

Corsair editors agreed to remove the tag of her name from the article attributes but to leave the article intact. But if Google decides to break a link to the article, it’s as good as having the article de-published, and that seems like a lot of power to put in the hands of a search engine.

The Journey Begins

The last time I worked full-time in a newsroom, Bill Clinton was in the White House, everyone was terrified of Y2K, and The Blair Witch Project was the hot movie. The height of technology was the dial-up modem that allowed you to connect, after several frightful minutes and not always with success, to the mysterious informational realm of the world wide web.

Ancient dial up moden
Cue Squawking Sounds Now

I left full-time journalism when I was hired in 1999 to a tenure track position teaching journalism at Santa Monica College. Since then I’ve taught hundreds of journalism students at SMC while watching the field of journalism churn through monumental changes. I’ve kept up with these shifts, of course, and adapted curriculum changes as needed. But reading journalism-related blogs, attending journalism conferences and holding annual advisory board meetings with local professionals just wasn’t enough to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

That’s when I heard about a very special program offered by the International Center for Journalists called the Back in the Newsroom Fellowship. ICFJ’s fellowship program takes educators at colleges with large Latino populations and places them in cutting-edge digital newsroom in the United States. The goal is to give them a close-up view to how media companies are creating and distributing their content so that educators could take these practices back into the classroom. The overall goal is to increase diversity in the newsroom.

I was accepted into this program in mid-May, 2015. I’m preparing to spend nine weeks inside the Los Angeles Times beginning June 1.  Before that I will travel to ICFJ’s Washington D.C. office for two days in late May for program orientation and a chance to meet the five other journalism teachers selected to the program.

With this blog I hope to share my experiences as I step back into a newsroom for the first time since dial-up modems were all the rage.