For several decades, economists and futurists have been predicting the eventual demise of unskilled labor at the hands of technology. Increasing automation, along with recent advancements in machine-learning and artificial intelligence, is threatening jobs many thought would be immune to digital subversion. Now, even journalists are at stake. The Associated Press has started publishing over 3,000 automatically generated financial stories each quarter using a service developed by Automated Insights called Wordsmith.
For many hardworking people who believe their unique skill sets can’t possibly be distilled down to a set of parameters on a screen, news of technological encroachment arouses a mix of anger and fear. Currently, most of these generated stories are simple earnings reports and other similarly formulaic financial pieces of news, but the probability for further advancement of automated writing is likely. Even now in its earliest stages of evolution, Wordsmith could be knocking the bottom rungs off of your average reporter’s ladder to success. Journalists who plan to start their careers by writing small and often bland reports on the minutiae of Corporate America will need to be more creative in the future.
There are some convincing arguments for the use of automation in journalism. Internet driven news has to be published quickly and in high volume; so in an arena where the fight for relevance boils down to how much attention you can attract to yourself, the subtleties of quality journalism are often diminished. Because of this, certain reporters are welcoming the change–noting that using software to automatically generate smaller, rigidly structured content leaves more time for bigger, better stories with more in-depth content. The need for more long-form journalism in today’s news could, at least in part, be fulfilled by automating preliminary reports, taking pressure off of the journalists and freeing up more time for research, fact-checking and writing.
Sadly, the advantages of a partially automated news industry don’t do anything to ensure that young journalists will be able to secure a foothold in the new mercurial world of reporting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2020 journalists will be facing a steep 7.5% decline in employment. Several factors are converging to destabilize the field, but technological advancement–leading to greater centralization of media powers–is at the top of the list. Matters are complicated even further by the growth of citizen journalism, as made possible by social networks.
These issues are in no way unique to journalism–obsolescence has claimed many jobs throughout history–but in our time these changes are occurring at faster rates and in more dramatic ways than before. The next several decades are sure to bring a host of new jobs along with the lost ones, and our economy will have to adapt with great speed. An Internet filled with robotically generated text; an interstate filled with self-driving trucks; a department store with no cashiers. It seems important to remember that while technology does often simplify the complex, it also complexifies the simple.