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A Spotter’s Guide to Robot Journalism in Local News

robot journalism AI local news ethical journalism

If you still read your local newspaper, there are probably way more AI-generated articles than you realise…

‘Written by a Robot’ is a colourful way of saying ‘generated by an AI algorithm’. 

The main two Robot giveaways are Style and Subject. Robots are getting better at imitating humans, but there are still a few giveaways on spotting them. Here’s our brief spotter’s guide.

Robot Style in Local News

As you scan an article, do you sometimes find your eyelids dipping?

Do you impatiently skip down the paragraphs looking to pick out the relevant numbers, instead of lingering on delightful turns of phrase or local features?

If so, chances are it was written by a robot.

It will be as dull as ditchwater.

  • As bland as blancmange
  • All the cut-through of a cookie-cutter
  • As lively as a lecherous Lothario off his lithium

Robot journalists can’t yet reliably generate orotund phrases in context, but it won’t be long before they can.

A robot writer, for example, is unlikely to use the word ‘orotund’. If it did, a robot editor would probably replace it with a more common word. ‘Fancy’, maybe. Or ‘florid’.

In this particular case, you and other human editors may also prefer ‘fancy’ to ‘orotund’ – but what if all local newspapers ended up using the same algorithm?

Panic As Man Burns Crumpets

Would any robot generate a headline like ‘Panic as Man Burns Crumpets

That’s the title chosen for a bittersweet memoir by British local news feature writer Roger Lytollis.

The book lays out with painful clarity the transition of the Cumberland News from shining light of local journalism to anodyne advertising platform.

The tipping point was in 2018, when it was taken over by corporate conglomerate Newsquest Media Group Ltd.

Newsquest is one of a handful of agglomerators who are pushing robot-written content to replace copy written by humans.

Such corporations are working with AI developers on robot editors to adjudicate on such matters as using ‘orotund’ or ‘fancy’.

What do you think? How precisely can you draw the line between ‘colourful’ and ‘pompous’?

In isolation, replacing ‘orotund’ with ‘fancy’ may be a good editorial decision in this case, but that’s not the point.

The Robots are gaining ground

As it improves, AI will get much better at both writing and editing. Robot-spotting will get trickier. Newsquest newspapers, and those of its US parent company Gannett, are already full of robot articles, automating the low-hanging fruit of replacing finance and sports reporters.

Why? It’s not complicated, when viewed from a bean-counting perspective- Money.

  • Slapdash finance and sports hacks working under time pressure tend to paste numbers/scoresheets together with plausible, grammatical sentences.
  • Expensive, ethical, responsible finance and sports reporters selectively use carefully contextualised financial data, or sports stats, to illustrate or support their broader analysis.

Robots are already pretty good at the former. AI boffins are working hard at improving the latter.

We’ve written elsewhere about the challenges poses by robot-writing algorithms like GPT-3, in the context of effective climate action.

At the cutting edge, GPT-3 opens up the possibility of unleashing a mega-tsunami of plausible robot-written content that could break the internet.

GPT-3’s developers seem to be trying to keep their genie in the bottle, but the past few thousand years of human history don’t provide many successful examples of controlling technological progress.

Super-intelligent robots v. stochastic parrots

Some computational linguists, unimpressed by the ‘intelligence’ displayed by GPT-3’s Big Data form of AI, have dubbed it no more than ‘stochastic parroting’.

GPT-3’s AI credentials are a nice debating point for for ivory-tower philosophers, but in the meantime its creators are focusing their efforts on containing it, via technological tricks or proprietary IP access.

The real world holds a cautionary tale. A few years back a couple of exotic pet parrots escaped their London cages. Now huge flocks of parrots can be seen in the city’s parks, threatening native species and entire eco-systems. Stochastic parrots could wreak far worse virtual damage than their real world feathered counterparts.

And in the world of newspapers and local journalism, it’s not parrots that should concern us, but gannetts. Or rather, Gannett.

Gannett v. ethical local journalism

Newsquest, the UK’s biggest local paper agglomerator – the one that gobbled up The Cumberland News – is owned by Gannett.

Gannett is the USA’s #2 local newspaper agglomerator – here’s a list of the hundreds of local titles they’ve gobbled up there.

Gannett is owned by New York private equity group New Media Investment Group. NMIG also owns GateHouse Media, LLC, America’s #1 local newspaper agglomerator.

Gannett’s bean-counters, and their software engineer sidekicks, appear to have no qualms about the prospect of unleashing a tsunami of poor quality content on the internet.

They’re too busy embracing this exciting new cost-cutting strategy – or as they might put it:

downstream-distributed localised grammatical text incorporating geographically-defined data subsets derived from larger universal datasets with customised geographical fields correlating to the geographical scope of the tasked masthead.

For clarity, in the millions of robo-articles with which they flood across the internet, Gannett’s robo-editors might replace that techno-babble with ‘robot-written content’.

Robot subject matter

For Robot-Spotters, the other giveaway is subject matter.

As Robot articles harvest local data from national datasets, once you know what to look for they’re quite easy to spot.

Any article in your local rag about trends in house prices, crime statistics, or more recently, Covid stats, are probably written by Robot.

If you’ve ever used mail merge features, or dabbled with macros, you’ll get the idea. When you see a headline like:

Local Covid Cases Rocketing

Then imagine something like:


Follow the money

Massive agglomerators, like Gannett, are working with AI developers to cut costs through automation.

This applies to both the ‘curation’ role that used to be filled by editors in selecting relevant stories for an individual reader, and to news articles themselves.

Replace an editor with a robot, and you cut one human salary.  Replace an entire class of reporters, and you could cut hundreds, thousands for the bigger conglomerates of human salaries.

Clearly, this is of interest to the bean-counting hedge funds who are now the ultimate owners of so many local titles. Ignoring such cost-cutting potential would be a dereliction of duty to their investors.

But where will this cost-cutting, content-bolstering arms race end?

Worse to come

When it comes to replacing reporters with robots, generating sports and finance reports is just the beginning.

They’re the low-hanging fruit, because even human-written sports and finance reports are basically numbers strung together with grammatical sentences. AI is pretty good at that already in these topic areas, and is now looking to apply the same technology to others.

The push behind the automation of journalism is obvious. If you can’t raise revenue, you have to cut costs.

The uncomfortable truth is that robots are much cheaper than humans. They work 24/7, don’t get sick or unionise, and are much easier to manage. 

The prose they generate is currently quite easy to spot as it is utterly bereft of vivacity, colour, elan, piquancy, local flavour, or any sense of community/landscape. But this is no more than a programmer’s challenge.

They’ll be looking for patterns to emulate the kind of prose written by sweating, flawed, flesh-and-bone reporters who live and work in their own communities, chat to people on their way to the office in the centre of town, and always keep an ear out as they wait at the school gate, play with their local sports teams, or drink with their old school friends at their local pub.

Ignore The Byline

You might be forgiven for thinking that an obvious way to distinguish human reporters from robots writers is just to glance at the ‘byline’.

The byline is the name of the reporter at the top of the article following the word ‘by’, usually accompanied by a smiling mug shot .

A byline was once valuable journalistic currency. It was a badge of Proper Local News. Real reporters employed by the paper got them, agency reports didn’t.  

For sub-editors writing in their free-time, with dreams of becoming reporters, freelancers looking for their big break, or new recruits desperate to make their name, your first ‘byline’ was a big big deal.

Post-internet, this has all changed. Knowing that a byline implied authenticity, papers began to plaster them on any old article to boost credibility. 

Advertorials stopped being labelled as such, and had reporter bylines and smiling faces plastered on them. As advertising began its creeping dominance over journalism, this currency became further devalued, as cut-and-pasted press releases from advertisers started appearing under reporter bylines.

For a while, a byline retained its basic, most functional meaning – that it was written ‘by’ someone. That someone, increasingly, may have been a corporate PR, but at least they were human.  No longer.

Don’t be fooled by the appearance of a byline and smiling photo adorning the top of a robot-written article. 

Byline devaluation

As we demonstrate in our pilot Review Group, the Salisbury Journal Review, conglomerates like Newsquest/Gannett no longer have any compunction about pretending robot-written articles were written by humans.

This must be pretty humiliating for the human involved, who’s trained for years as a professional writer. 

Assuming, of course, the person represented by the byline and photograph actually exists.

These are the kind of tips we offer in our See Through News Newspaper Review Project, a public media literacy project to raise awareness of the under-reported concentration of media ownership in the local newspaper sector.

So what?

The sad decline of the ethicial standards of local newspapers matters because it’s devaluing the idea of ethical journalism.

Even if they agree with their bias, most readers of national newspapers or TV channels are vaguely aware of the political leanings and biases or their owners – usually billionaires who benefit from the status quo.

Fox News viewers, Sun readers or Wall Street Journal subscrsibers are likely to know they’re owned by NewsCorp/Rupert Murdoch, and this knowledge at least provides a kind of filter, or context for their content.

But the corporate takeover of local newspapers is even more comprehensive and egrigious, and has happened under the radar. Most readers might have a sense that their local newspapers are not what they used to be, are full of ads, and contain very little local news, but they’re unaware of the cynical zombification that lies behind it. Corporate-owned local newspapers are more advertising platforms than independent news sources.

The danger is that most people still think they’re practicing journalism. Mistaking concealed advertising for ethical journalism leads people to think ‘all journalists are the same’, which is a slippery slope to ‘doing your own research’ and ‘choosing your own facts’.

Wherever that slope leads, it’s not to rational, evidence-based discussion of climate change, and that’s why we’re honking the klaxon on the sad decline of local journalism.

We’re on the side of journalists – and robots too

It’s only fair to point out that automated journalism, like any other technological advance that relieves humans of dirty, dangerous, boring and repetitive labour, is not in itself a bad thing.

You’ll find perfectly rational and reasonable defence of judicious use of robot articles, in industry webinars, where big agglomerators enthusiastically team up with companies literally called United Robots to promote such positive aspects.

While collaborating with companies like United Robots, it’s interesting that they go out of their way not to use terms like ‘robot journalists’ – this industry trade magazine article‘s headline is:

Dos and don’ts of newsroom automation – and why ‘robot journalism’ isn’t the right term

Press Gazette, Oct 24 2022

Mind the gap

When big corporations say one thing when talking amongst themselves, and to investors, and try to call it something else when speaking to their customers, it usually signals they’re well aware of an ethical gap.

So it is with robot journalism. Corporate agglomerators talk up the benefits of automating the grunt work of local news, but are silent on the downsides, or when it comes to putting human bylines on robot articles.

This is the ethical gap that See Through News is seeking to point out, lest we trip up.