Most obstacles to employment for journalists traditionally wear a human face. But there's a fresh exception to this rule. News organizations wanting to cut costs are increasingly using artificial intelligence to create the sort of stories once generated by flesh-and-blood reporters.
The Denver Post is experimenting with the technology to produce blurbs about sports on the high school level. However, the paper is drawing the line — for now, anyway — when it comes to straight news stories.
"The Denver Post has no intention of using artificial intelligence to cover 'local news stories from suburban communities, school districts and other governmental districts,'" writes Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo via email. "None."
The portion of Colacioppo's remark above that's in single quotes is from a proposal submitted by Post owner Media News Group (controlled by vampiric hedge fund Alden Global Capital) amid negotiations to extend a newsroom contract that expired on August 1. The line was initially divulged on October 11 by The Intercept and included in a media roundup by the Colorado Independent's Corey Hutchins on October 18 — and Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild, confirms its authenticity.
"It was in their first proposal," Mulligan says. "They proposed to have the right to use artificial intelligence mainly for prep sports. They weren't covering it at all, and there's technology out there now that can make paragraphs off agate even for pee-wee leagues. But their first proposal allowed them to expand the use as technology improved to cover municipal governments and other stories. We took more exception to that than we did the prep-sports proposal."
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For her part, Colacioppo maintains that the broader suggestion was briefly added to the management proposal "because of a misunderstanding [in] the language." She adds: "Guild representatives know it was removed within minutes with my full support. It's disappointing the guild portrayed it in any other way."
AI is currently capable of spinning prose from meeting summaries created by, for instance, city councils in small communities. Such events seldom receive press coverage, typically because news organizations such as the Post simply don't have the personnel to spare. But Colacioppo clearly feels that such text must be rendered by someone with real intelligence, rather than the artificial kind, if it's to have genuine value.
"We hire experienced, professional reporters to do this work because covering local government requires the ability to listen critically, ask good questions and develop sources to ensure the writer understands all the nuance that occurs in a meeting — and behind closed doors," she stresses. "The reporter must make smart decisions about what is most important and know how to listen for the quotes that properly summarize what is occurring. Technology is amazing, but I cannot conceive of a machine taking over that role. I wouldn't want to work in such a newsroom."
High school sports is a different matter, in her view.
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"We are conducting an experiment regarding prep football games," she confirms. "We have long published scores but have had no indication that a list of stats was interesting to our readers. Working with Data Strive, we are using the data from the schools that we previously published to create short summaries of games."
At this point, Colacioppo isn't making a long-term commitment to the methodology. "Whether this is successful remains to be seen," she concedes, "but innovation must be part of our daily efforts. This is new content for us and in no way is meant to replace a reporter who can tell the stories of teams and individuals, their challenges and their successes. Clearly, no paper in the state can be at every game. This lets us generate stories for those who are interested in a recap. We hope readers will know that if they are interested in prep results, the Denver Post is the only place to go." Furthermore, she adds, "We will continue to seek prep stories for our professional staff to cover, just as we've always done."
Regarding those contract negotiations, Mulligan says, "We've been in a lull for a few months. There were some informal discussions seeking a resolution that have not panned out. But we'll be returning to the table November 12 and 13 in Denver." So, too, will guilds in four other states: New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California. A total of twelve Media News Group bargaining units are presently without contracts, including two with the Denver Post and what Mulligan refers to as the "Denver Post mailers unit."
And the action is about to start. Post staffer John Wenzel tweeted this on November 11: "I'm rallying with my union colleagues tomorrow against the @denverpost's hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, and the fact that it won't give us a cost-of-living raise while making tens of millions in profits off our labor #NewsMatters @AldenExposed."