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Rise of the machines: Robot reporting and automated journalism

The massive amounts of layoffs in the journalism industry in the last few years have left many newsroom positions vacant and many reporters and editors are charged with taking on more work than ever. Enter automated journalism.

Computer programs and artificial intelligence are taking over the tasks that were once the work of journalists and sometimes making an actual human obsolete. If this sounds like futuristic malarkey, consider the following examples of how automation is making the live reporter extinct.

Weddings

The New York Times is one of a few media orgs who have taken advantage of semantic web technology to automate wedding announcements. Instead of a reporter writing each announcement by hand, readers can simply input information in an online form such as the bride and groom’s name, occupation, and more. The information is then used to create a wedding announcement, Mad Libs-style.

 

Sports

Sports writers should also hold on to their notebooks as new technology is in the works to produce sports stories based on various stats. If one team wins or loses, a computer can automatically generate a readable story, including what happened in the game and when based on input data. You can check out an example of how this works in this Business Week article and more information on automation in sports journalism here.

Finance

Financial news and analysis will also be impacted by automation and advanced technology. Programs like Infonic’s Sentiment software can analyze thousands of news stories and determine how a particular company is faring. The technology is pitched to financial traders, but is, in essence, the news affecting the news.

News design

A number of academics have proposed the idea of using algorithms to determine the layout of a newspaper or print publication, an idea encapsulated by this post by Steve Yelvington. Instead of a news designer laying out the paper or magazine, a computer examines the content of available stories and lays them out according to factors like length and keywords. The idea hasn’t caught on just yet as human-powered news judgment is still the preferred method of design. However, the idea of automated layouts isn’t so farfetched.

TV news

It’s not just the print journalists who are becoming obsolete. This Variety.com article examines Tribune Company’s experiment with anchor-free television. Instead of news anchors, voiceovers are heard as video clips and images are played. In the experimental model, there would be no anchor desk and no on-air correspondents. (The article is worth a read, if only for this quote: “We’re trying to get away from Barbie and Ken sitting behind a desk chit-chatting with each other with their nice teeth.”)

If you still like to see and hear people delivering the news, check out News at Seven’s news reports delivered by animated characters. The voices of the characters are also computer-generated:

 
While the traditional reporter isn’t going anywhere just yet, automation will continue to find its way into journalism. Is this a good or bad thing? On one hand it frees up journalists to do less menial tasks and focus on “big J” journalism. On the other hand, it makes news reporting less human and gives up lots of control to computers. What do you think?

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

  Should journalists learn programming skills?: A Flowchart
  3 Ways journalism classes are making education more interactive
  5 Interactive maps that connect communities

The future of 10,000 Words is here

I’m thrilled to announce another milestone in the history of this blog: 10,000 Words has been acquired by WebMediaBrands, the parent company of Mediabistro.com. What does this mean for the site? The same great original and insightful content on technology and online journalism, just more of it.

The acquisition makes possible what I’ve wanted for some time 10,000 Words — even before my move to The Washington Post — for 10,000 Words to evolve into a community of voices chronicling the latest trends in journalism. I will continue to contribute to the site for a while and am excited about the future of 10,000 Words.

As always, I encourage you to follow 10,000 Words on Twitter, as well as my newly-created individual Twitter account @marksluckie.

Thanks to everyone for following 10,000 Words and here’s to the future of the site!

Liveblogging & Webcasting

The top 7 technologies that changed modern journalism forever

In the last few decades, the journalism industry has been rocked by an explosion of technology that has changed how news is gathered, reported, distributed, and shared. The following are the key technologies that have aided in the transformation of news:

1. Digital audio recorder

Before digital audio recorders, there was the reel-to-reel machine, a clunky device that required the operator to physically splice pieces of tape together to form an audio story. Fast forward a few years later and the digital audio recorders have made the machine obsolete and changed audio recording forever.

Digital audio recorders allow journalists to go wherever they wish with what amounts to a tiny recording studio in their pocket. Digital recorders allow for quick, off-the-cuff recording of a news subject or interview and drastically cut down the time necessary to edit and broadcast the recording. In addition, digital recorders also allow the user to connect to a computer and within minutes publish the audio to the web, a concept that decades ago was unimaginable.

 

2. Friendster

Before there was MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter, there was Friendster, the online community that popularized the concept of the social network. Even though the site has waned in popularity, it opened the door for hundreds of thousands of social networks. The number of social network users around the world totals in the billions, with Facebook alone comprising more than 500 million members.

For journalists, social networks enable reporters and newsrooms to interact directly with the people and the communities they cover. A large percentage of any online news operation’s web traffic comes from social networks as users recommend and share individual stories, rather than individual publications, with each other. Social networks have also replaced online news sites as destinations for news and allow audiences to shape and filter the news that reaches them.

3. iPhone


The iPhone, a device not without its flaws, is largely responsible for introducing the concept of applications to the public, eventually shaping mobile devices into mobile news readers. More than 24 percent of Americans now use apps regularly, more than half of which are news-related, according to a 2010 Pew study. The iPhone has accustomed audiences to paying for digital and mobile content and of course paved the way for a new generation of e-readers used for news consumption.

4. Google Maps

When Google Maps, and more importantly its API, first hit newsrooms, the technology was often used on a smaller scale to post small embeddable maps that accompanied stories. As newsrooms matured, Google Maps was used to create complex, location-based databases that not only categorized, but also visualized information. Google Maps in essence made data-driven journalism both the production and consumption — accessible to everyone and transformed what would otherwise be unsightly charts and graphs into more user-friendly ways of displaying information. Maps, to this day, remain an important component of multimedia storytelling.


 

5. YouTube

Who knew that a site that hosted videos of dancing cats and college pranks would become an online destination where an average of two billion videos are viewed daily and hundreds of thousands of videos are uploaded every day. YouTube conditioned audiences to watch online video and more of it and opened the door for both broadcast and non-broadcast newsrooms to publish and share video content online. YouTube not only empowered average citizens to upload and share their videos with a worldwide audience, it also transformed news video from siloed broadcasts to content that is freely shared and embedded on the web.

 

6. Laptops

Attend any press conference, news event, or media gathering and you’re likely to see a crowd of reporters with laptops in hand documenting what is happening in front of them. The typewriter and the desktop computer both revolutionized modern journalism, but it is the laptop computer that freed reporters from the confines of the newsroom. As laptops become more powerful and inexpensive, they now often serve as a mobile multimedia production lab. Reporters can now write, record or edit video or audio, or broadcast live directly from a laptop computers and from anywhere around the world.

7. Wireless internet

A laptop wouldn’t be as revolutionary a tool for journalists if it weren’t for wireless internet. Wi-fi puts the library of information contained on the web at a reporter’s fingertips. Wireless internet also allows journalists to report from the field and file stories without having to physically return to the newsroom. As a Pew study notes, people are actually consuming more news than they used to and much of it is accessed online. There are many factors as to why this is, but it is likely due in large part to the pervasiveness of wireless internet and the many opportunities for news consumption the technology affords.

 
All of the aforementioned technologies were developed or rose in popularity within the last few decades. Who knows what knew technology will emerge that will also change the face of journalism?

Agree or disagree with the list? Was something left off that merits a mention? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

What the journalism industry can learn from porn
3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists
Why journalists should learn to code (and why some shouldn’t bother)

Get Schooled: 6 Education-themed news databases

After the release of the Los Angeles Times’ teacher database that presented information on the effectiveness of hundreds of area teachers, many journalists’ eyes were opened to the possibility of using databases for education reporting.

The Times’ project is one of many education-related databases produced in the last several years that have transformed publicly available documents into useful and usable resources for readers. The examples below share many things in common, including search fields for school, ZIP code, etc., simple interfaces, and eschew clunky tables that are used often for online news reporting, but are usually hard to follow or absorb.

Chicago Tribune: 2009 Illinois School Report Cards

The Tribune’s project is a straightforward examination of area schools that contains searchable information such as class size, test scores, household income, — the kind of information parents and other concerned folks are likely to search for.

The Washington Post: Fixing D.C.’s Schools

This 2007 project from The Post is still a model from which other news databases should be modeled. Its easy to use interface makes searching for the tons of available data on student and teacher proficiency, crimes, health code violations and more a cinch.

The Los Angeles Times: California Schools Guide

“Grading the Teachers” isn’t the first education-related database created by the Times. In 2008, the Times debuted Schools Guide with test scores, enrollment data, and a slew of other information on hundreds of L.A.-area schools.

USA Today: The Smokestack Effect – Toxic Air and America’s Schools

A schools-related database doesn’t have to focus exclusively on education. This 2008 project by USA Today illustrated how industrial pollution affected nearly 128,000 schools around the nation. Each school is ranked by percentile, indicating how many other schools have worse pollution problems than the selected school.

The New York Times: Diversity in the Classroom

This NY Times database takes a unique approach and examines the effect of immigration on American classrooms. The available charts show the number of students of color has changed over the years and readers can drill down information by state, county, and school district.

The New York Times: New York School Test Scores

Like the previously mentioned databases, this one has the standard search tools for county and ZIP code, but is also notable that it links to the largest schools in the region on the topmost page. This allows a large percentage of viewers to go directly to the test score information for that school. Once a school is selected, there is a plethora of information about how that school’s students fared on standardized tests.

Databases like the ones mentioned here take lots of time, effort, and resources to develop, so why should you endeavor to create one? Well besides the millions of potential page views, education-related databases provide information to schools, teachers, parents and students that is hard to find anywhere else and provides a public service.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

Databases and polls: When numbers are the news
News databases: Turning numbers into knowledge
15 Awesome interactive maps from the New York Times

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