Journalists with robot experience: "Not a threat!"

We recently received a question from two German researchers: Do journalists profit from the automated journalism or do they find themselves homeless a few years later? We reflected that this focus on the potential threat of automated content to reporters’ jobs and the quality of journalism is all but gone in Sweden. And that this may have something to do with the fact that here, almost all local media houses now use the technology every single day.

Two years ago, Hanna Tuulonen looked into this topic for her Masters thesis in Investigative Journalism at the University of Gothenburg. She interviewed journalists to find out how attitudes towards news robots changed after they started working with or side by side with news robots. Already in 2017 it was clear that once they did, journalists attitude to news robots changed from neutral and negative to positive. The reason: the robots take care of the repetitive tasks, allowing reporters to shift their focus to interviews, field work and analyses.

 United Robots have delivered automated journalism to Swedish news groups since 2015. When we first started approaching newsrooms, there was often a sense of unease among editors and reporters, who perceived what we do as a potential threat to both journalism and journalists. Over the past 4–5 years, as publishers have embraced the technology, that situation has changed quite radically in this country.

 Today we rarely meet journalists who view news robots as a threat. We’ve talked to a few reporters who work with our technology about its impact in the newsroom and on what’s published. Some comments on key aspects as they see it:

Freeing up journalists’ time, not threatening jobs. “I don’t see news robot as a threat to journalism. Right now they give journalists time to develop better journalism. It allows us to spend more time doing what we’re best at, and less time doing basic reporting,” says Markus Isacson, sport reporter at VK in Umeå. “I don’t think robot journalism is a threat to our jobs. Of course there may be people who think journalists will be replaced by ‘cheaper’ robots, but I doubt that publishers who go down that route will have a bright future.”

 Jennifer Engström, journalist at Mittmedia in Sundsvall, also sees benefits in terms of letting her and her colleagues focus on qualified tasks: “If we can save time, effort and money by having a robot doing “simple” journalism, that’s worth a lot more than having a reporter spend evenings/weekends calling in match results. This means we’ll live longer as a media company – and I’ll keep my job longer.”

According to sport reporter David Hellsing at Mittmedia in Örebro, the robot simply doesn’t do what he as a journalist does: “I work closely covering one of the big sports teams in our city. The robot will never get that close.” 

Providing more local content. The robots allow local media houses to provide more local content, according to journalists Anna Sundelin and Mattias Åkerlund, at VK’s Affärsliv 24. “We currently don’t have the resources to pay journalists to cover division 5 football matches or traffic news from villages and towns all around the county – but that is content robots can deliver.”

As of June 2019, Swedish publishers use news robots a lot more extensively than the industry in other markets. As a result, journalists are familiar with the technology and its benefits in the newsroom. With news media in countries beyond Scandinavia now increasingly deploying robot journalism, we believe the talk of threat we so often hear will change into a focus on the opportunities.