The idea of robot reporters has been around a very long time, 85 years to be precise. But what John Coatman* (1889-1958), professor of Imperial Economic Relations at the University of London, had in mind when he was appointed news editor of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1934 was very different from the alarming news Jaclyn Peiser reported in the media section of yesterday’s The New York Times, under the headline “The Rise of Robot Reporters”. The Coatman robot wasn’t expected to be able to think for itself; Peiser wrote about artificial intelligence now being used in reporting.
John CoatmanCoatman’s plan was to add a metallic “reporter” to his staff – he also appointed the BBC’s first two professional journalists, who happily happened to be humans. Coatman had decided to send his robot to political meetings, first nights at the theatre, public dinners and boxing and football matches. Its sensitive recording device would pick up “raw news” to be broadcast on BBC radio. Presumably the BBC thought Coatman was quite mad, because it didn’t proceed with the idea.
Given Coatman’s dubious qualifications for the job – sadly he was a precursor for the people who are making decisions for the worldwide media today - his thinking was based on economics. His Tin Man reporter might need an occasional drop of oil, but it would save the BBC having to pay a weekly salary to feed some living-breathing reporter's wife and kids and put a roof over the head of the flesh-and-blood journo.
"Robot" machines in the Press Box on fight night.
Coatman wasn’t the first to think of the idea of a robot reporter, simply the first to seriously propose such a monstrosity. Six years earlier, when the great American newspaper publisher Frank Ernest Gannett (1876-1957) demonstrated Walter Welcome Morey’s robotic typesetting machines to news industry leaders in Rochester, New York, he was asked whether the automation of Linotypes could be extended to a “mechanical substitute for reporters”. The journalist covering the event for Associated Press thought the question was “facetious”. Gannett’s technology was actually the Teletypesetter, a device for setting type by telegraph developed with Morkrum-Kleinschmidt in Chicago and ultimately dependent on human input (and outtake).
The horrid vision of robot reporters had been around since at least 1924, when US journalist and political theorist Frank Richardson Kent I (1877-1958) was asked about his insightful interviewing style. "His" interviewing technique would remain in vogue, Kent said, until such time as the unthinkable happened and newspaper and magazine publishers replaced human beings with robot reporters. It took another 67 years before the nightmare became a reality, when Nihon Visual in Tokyo launched its $US7 million Stherotina (or “Tina” for short), a 5ft tall, 99lb kimono-clad beauty who could interview robot dancers at Tokushima on Shikoku. Apparently they understood one another’s language.
By 2002 the world was gripped by MIT’s idea that Mars Explorer-type robots could report in war zones. Not only would the reporter not ask for wages, but it wouldn’t take sick leave and wouldn’t die on the job expecting to be buried at some expensive funeral. Costly blood would not be spilt in the quest for news.
Robotic reporting is now a reality, even here, where The Guardian’s Australian edition published its first machine-assisted article last week. And the world is worse for it. How are these machines programmed, and who’s in control of programming them? Can they really THINK for themselves? I doubt it. A New Zealand journalist pointed out today, “There are quite severe limitations with auto-stories. For example Motley Fool (presumably using a human reporter) reported that MicroStrategy’s ‘Revenue declined once again, and adjusted earnings fell off a cliff’. A preformatted automated story won’t spot the unexpected - which is where the news is.” As Peiser reported, AP’s straightforward robot written story said, “MicroStrategy … reported fourth-quarter net income of $3.3 million, after reporting a loss in the same period a year earlier.”
The worst part of all this is, as Coatman foresaw 85 years ago in London, robot reporters save publishers and broadcasters money. Right now in Australia, private equity owners such as Allegro Funds, Anchorage Capital and Platinum Equity, organisations which know nothing about the industry, are lining up to carve up “regional” (Australian Community Media division) newspapers not wanted by the Nine Network (Nine Entertainment), which took over Fairfax Media last year. These people have no interest other than the extraction of money, and their civic responsibility is limited to a blank stare. “Hedge funds buy old media not to save them, but to milk them,” reported Crikey.com. “Old media may have a limited life, but they have revenues to be milked all the way to the end. To maximise profit on revenues, they gut cost-centres - or ‘newsrooms’ as we used to call them.” Yes, they gut them of humans and replace bodies with robots.
Investment bank Macquarie Capital has the mandate to divest the “regional” newspapers, more than 170 publications and related websites which include key mastheads such as The Canberra Times, The Newcastle Herald, The Border Mail and Illawarra Mercury. Many of the publications mentioned on the right of the graphic above have, in my 50 years’ experience in Australian newspapers, proved to be the breeding ground of some of this country’s finest human journalists.
*John Coatman was born in Stockport, Cheshire, England, in the last quarter of 1889. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University and went on to Pembroke College, Oxford University. In 1910 he joined the Indian Police Force and served in the Frontier Constabulary from 1914-19 and in the third Afghan War. In 1926 he became director of public information for the Indian Government and was a member of the Legislative Assembly from that year until 1930, when he returned to England and took up his position as professor of Imperial Economic Relations at the University of London. He died at Murcott, Oxfordshire, on November 1, 1958, aged 68.