Robot reporter Wordsmith begins its advance

Robot reporter Wordsmith begins its advance

By JOE POMPEO 6:06 a.m. | Oct. 20, 2015 96

The Associated Press made waves last year with its decision to use a technology that generates articles about public companies' quarterly earnings results as opposed to having reporters write such coverage.

Now the company behind that technology is making a push for its software to be used more widely among a broader array of news organizations, as well as other types of companies.

North Carolina-based Automated Insights is rolling out a new version of its 8-year-old Wordsmith technology, which can automate news coverage that is based on data like financial statements or sports statistics.

Until now, Wordsmith has only been available through expensive and complex custom packages like Automated Insights' project with the AP, which also was an investor in Automated Insights.

Tuesday marks the beginning of free trials of the new, simplified version of Wordsmith. (Think of it as buying Microsoft Word as opposed to splurging on a customized proprietary word-processing platform.) It enables anyone with data to turn that data into narratives without humans having to write them.

About a dozen news outlets, from large mainstream players to smaller hometown publishers, have already been beta-testing Wordsmith 2.0 in recent weeks, and several are expected to be attached to the official debut early next year, said Automated Insights C.E.O. Robbie Allen. He declined to name them, citing non-disclosure agreements.

The use of automation and algorithms to assist in reporting has become increasingly common in newsrooms, according to a recent report by the Nieman Foundation, gaining prominence in part thanks to companies like Automated Insights and competitor Narrative Science.

While Wordsmith could appeal to sectors ranging from e-commerce to real estate to business intelligence, media has been one of its target demographics. Automated Insights says Wordsmith has generated more than a billion articles, stories and reports to date. Aside from the AP, existing media clients include Comcast and Yahoo.

News organizations could use the new version of Wordsmith to crank out a high volume of stories on anything from regional employment statistics to high school sports scores, said Allen, an author and former engineer who founded Automated Insights in 2007. (The technology was officially coined Wordsmith in 2014.)

One area in particular that Allen expects news outlets will use Wordsmith for in the coming months is coverage of the 2016 elections.

"With an election year coming up, there's been quite a bit of interest," said Allen. He gave an example of generating candidate bios based on data sets that would include information like what schools a candidate attended, a candidate's voting records and how much money he or she has raised. Automated Insights gave POLITICO a Wordsmith demonstration that generated news articles about hypothetical state senate races.

"We're talking to some folks about election results," said Allen. "Politics is a good example because there tends to be a lot you're trying to cover at the same time. As the data's coming in around polling and the results themselves, stories can be told about that even quicker."

The idea, said Allen, is not to replace journalists, but to create more content more quickly than humans could do on their own, thereby enabling writers and reporters to focus on stories than can't be automated by a machine.

The AP, for example, used to manually cover about 300 earnings reports each quarter, according to Lou Ferrara, a former AP news executive who worked closely on the Wordsmith implementation. Wordsmith now spits out AP earnings coverage for some 4,700 companies, freeing up the reporters who previously wrote those stories, he said, adding, "I think automation is going to be essential to the survival of media."

Wordsmith nonetheless has skeptics to win over.

David Leonhardt, who heads up The New York Times' data-driven reporting team, The Upshot, said he is a proponent of automation. But he questioned the value of the type of writing that a technology like Wordsmith can produce for news outlets.

"I think it's true there's a kind of formulaic writing that we in journalism have often done ... but I'd be skeptical that automated writing would be of use to us," said Leonhardt, who emphasized that he has not tried Wordsmith himself. "I question in the long term whether formulaic writing has a lot of value. The real value in automation is rapidly analyzing and serving up data so that human beings can make judgments on how to present it."

The new Wordsmith platform will cost significantly less than Automated Insights' customized option, which can run into the six figures, said Allen. He declined to discuss whether his company, which was acquired earlier this year by Vista Equity Partners, is profitable.

"It's a natural evolution of the technology," he said. "We don't want to put up too many barriers for people to get started using it."


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