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Should AP use robots to write stories… or are earnings reports really that boring?

I was interested to see that the Associated Press (AP) plan to use software to write stories about earnings reports. This sounds a bit like the massive disruption to the way we do PR that has been promised by those who believe that you should be able to replace a PR pro with a bit of code fairly easily.

But is this really going to change much? It does mean that the AP will cover earnings reports from 4,400 companies in the USA, rather than 300. And let’s be honest, most earning reports are boring and formulaic. In fact I sometimes think that even my software skills should be good enough to write a bot to create some of the less creative earnings releases that are issued!

Furthermore there is no suggestion that the software will actually understand what it is writing. AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara wrote in a Q&A about the move, “our journalists will focus on reporting and writing stories about what the numbers mean and what gets said in earnings calls on the day of the release, identifying trends and finding exclusive stories we can publish at the time of the earnings reports.” So the robots aren’t taking over yet: in fact they don’t even know what the numbers mean!

This news, however, doesn’t mean that there will be no impact for PR professionals. Once an organisation such as the AP starts to use software to generate volume of content, it won’t be long before everyone is churning out tens of automatically-generated pages of content every day (in fact you’d probably be surprised at how many companies have some kind of automated content generation on their websites). Whilst this content isn’t going to be particularly insightful or high-quality, there is going to be a lot of it. Can we ensure that the high-quality content can still be found? (Google, we’re looking at you for help, here!)

I think the limited ambitions of this move will mean that it is very likely to be successful, but it’s just not clear what success will look like. For many companies, outsourcing blog or other content to low-cost writers, including those based in low-cost economies is now standard practice, and it works. Will these writers now see their careers threatened by even lower-cost software algorithms?

It will take some time for us to understand the full impact of this move, and the inevitable increase in adoption of automated content generation that will follow. Whilst making more information available is invariably a good thing, let’s hope that we don’t forget that quality will almost always beat quantity when it comes to making an impact on our audiences.

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