The Robo-Journalists Are Coming

But did a machine write this story?

Robot on a Computer
Was this article written by a data-driven word processing machine...or a robot? Mike Powell/Corbis

Every editor has dreamed of owning a robot journalist—a news-sniffing, article-producing machine that doesn't skip out on deadlines, miss scoops or tire of a story. Well, now they're in luck: Poynter's Benjamin Mullin reports that new software could put instantaneous story creation at their fingertips.

The idea of robo-journalism isn't new; the Associated Press has automated sports stories and earnings reports for years. The company that made the AP's work possible has released a free, beta version of its software, writes Mullin. It's called Wordsmith, and its parent company, Automated Insights, explains how it works in a release:

The process is part writing text and part writing logic, with data as the glue that ties everything together. Instead of writing a single story at a time, you create a story structure that can generate an unlimited number of articles.

The result is "a bit like a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge," writes Wired's Klint Finley. After uploading data from a spreadsheet, users can use each line as a variable and plug those variables into a text template, Finley explains. Those templates can create everything from reports to product descriptions—the boring, expensive stuff that can be time-consuming to produce.

However, real journalists may have cause for worry about the rise of the machines. Though robots won't get stressed by breaking stories, looming deadlines or flaky sources, they may put further financial stress on already underpaid writersespecially freelancers, whose jobs could be replaced by programs like Wordsmith. Without steady, well-paying opportunities for writers, it's worth wondering whether automated journalism will benefit both readers and employers.

Though Automated Insights' CEO Robbie Allen claims Wordsmith will "start revolutionizing the way you write and benefit from content," the technology hasn't convinced many in the journalism world. David Leonhardt, an editor at the New York Timestells Politico's Joe Pompeo that he questions "whether formulaic writing has a lot of value." That's somewhat ironic given the widespread use of the inverted pyramid formula by deadline-driven writers. But perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, in a few years, readers may not be able to tell whether people or machines report the news.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.