The new journalism: robotic or on brand?

Woody Allen recalled the day his father came home from work to say he had been replaced by a tiny device that could do everything he did. Next morning, his mother went out and bought one.

28 Apr 2014

by Ian Johns

Our anxieties about technology haven’t waned – just listen to Damon Albarn’s latest album, Everyday Robots, or watch Johnny Depp’s new sci-fi thriller, Transcendence. Perhaps more than ever, we’re nervous about what rather than who will replace us. Now it’s the turn of journalists to have beads of sweat on their brows.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times became the first newspaper to break a story generated by a computer. Using an algorithm called Quakebot that extracts data from trusted online sources such as the US Geological Survey, it produced and posted a very basic but readable short report about a local earthquake in three minutes. 

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The Los Angeles Times computer-generated earthquake story

Other organisations have also been developing complex algorithms to mine masses of data and shape them into structured stories. Steven Levy has reported for Wired magazine on US companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights, which are computer-generating everything from financial reports to robotic social media postings and tweets, and have attracted clients and partners such as Forbes, Reuters, Bloomberg and Yahoo.

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The data-mining company Narrative Science, which uses algorithms to construct stories

Does this robotic approach spell the end of traditional journalism? Perhaps it will for statistic-heavy sports reporting or number-crunching financial news, but how about when it comes to telling an engaging story that has readers coming back for more?

Luxury market analysts note that, in straitened times, people are only prepared to pay more for a brand that is perceived as special, truly luxurious or exudes quality. The same now probably applies to journalism. As online journalist Paul Bradshaw speculated several years ago, publishers will want to distinguish themselves from free papers by “converting the newspaper from tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping to a luxury product, where you are buying access to an exclusive club as much as the content itself”.

ILN knows, whether it’s producing Aston Martin Magazine or multi-media content for Maille, every brand has a story to tell. Well-written and well-subbed content is a vital part of that storytelling – it’s a reflection of the brand itself. And companies are realising the value of traditional journalism, hiring experienced magazine and newspaper writers to apply their inquisitive nature, investigative skills, strong prose and an eye for new ideas to produce compelling material that in turn enhances a brand’s reputation. As readers (and Google) will tell you, no-one likes rehashed content.

This new style of “brand journalism”, believes marketing strategist David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR, is a potentially more effective tool than direct marketing techniques and PR-driven publicity. As he told Canada’s The Globe and Mail: “I’m convinced that those with the traditional skills of marketing, public relations and copywriting are not the right people to create brand journalism content. Instead you need the skills of a journalist.”

Major companies have now established their own news sites, including, HSBC’s Global Connections, Intel’s Free Press and Adobe’s CMO. Last October, Ashley Brown, Coca-Cola’s director of digital communications and social media, shared some of the key lessons the company has learned since it relaunched its corporate website in 2012 as a digital magazine,Coca-Cola Journey, with its own in-house team of journalists.

With each story, Coca-Cola asks such questions as:

Do you care enough about that story to tell your mum or best friend?
Does it surprise you?
Does it have universal appeal?
Does it generate interest for your business?

Can a story generated by a computer be as compelling and share-worthy, one that shows an enquiring mind or shares a personal experience, offering something that makes it distinctive? At the moment there isn’t a software robot with the depth and personality of a George Monbiot or Caitlin Moran. So when it comes to content and customer engagement, we shouldn’t be a slave to the algorithm. We still need “operating systems” with a pulse and a mortgage. We still need that human touch.

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