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The Associated Press announced last week in its blog it is now publishing stories on corporate earnings based on an algorithm that aggregates data. In other words, machines rather than humans will be writing more of these stories.

Teaming up with the company Automated Insights, the wire service built a platform that allows it to produce 150- to 350-word stories related to the AP's business coverage. The company expects to fully automate its stories on earnings reports by the end of the quarter. It's also aiming to roll out the algorithm for sports coverage by the end of the year, said Lou Ferrara, AP vice-president and managing editor.

"Technology is enabling us to do things that we couldn't do before," he said. "Our expectation is to free reporters' time for them to cover their beats."

The AP expects to increase the number of earning reports to 4,400 automated pieces -- from 300 manually written stories -- about companies across the United States every quarter. The company's stated goal is to make reporters' jobs easier.

The company Automated Insights has been building algorithms such as this one for years, not only for news organizations but also for Samsung, Microsoft and GreatCall. Scott Frederick, chief operating officer of Automated Insights, said the goal is to provide personalized, engaging narratives while reducing reporters' workload.

"We let the data tell its own story. Our added value for journalism is focusing on quantitative aspects of the news: the what, where and when," said Frederick, "so that we can free reporters to work on the how and why."

Some financial reporters welcomed the tool for alleviating their work with numbers. Other experts expressed concerns,.

"We still have to wait and see what happens with other players like Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones," said Greg David, director of the City University of New York's business reporting program. "One aspect that concerns me is, if reporters are no longer monitoring the earning reports, that they might miss good stories on their beat."

Kevin Roose wrote for New York Magazine that "the stories that today's robots can write are, frankly the kinds of stories that humans hate writing anyway." He recalled his painful experience working on earning reports at the New York Times and said he is enthusiastic about how algorithms can process information and deal with tons of data that humans have a tough time handling.

Although the AP and other media outlets have been working with automated feeds of data for a while now, this is the first time an algorithm is using raw numbers to produce written pieces rather than just charts. With a label below that says "Generated automatically by Automated Insight" the AP makes clear which stories are created by robots.

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 D6

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