Local journalism is a vital part of a city’s ecosystem and since people are investing in robots instead of working to fix the business model, it’s upon all of us to support the publications we read. (Courtesy photo)

Can robots do journalism?

It’s no secret that the business of media is broken.


It’s no secret that the business of media is broken. Over the past decade we’ve seen countless beloved newspapers, magazines, and websites disappear, and with them, the unique viewpoint through which they helped us understand our world. The model through which strong journalism has always been funded no longer works, and the news organizations that survive are having a terrible time figuring out how to continue to do excellent work with diminishing resources.

As if all that didn’t make being a writer hard enough, journalists now have to worry about robots taking their jobs. Yes really.

Last year a San Francisco startup called Hoodline raised $10 million to essentially use artificial intelligence to create “news stories”. The way it works is that Hoodline gets a whole bunch of data from someone like Fandango or Yelp. Their algorithms analyze the data, plug their findings into a template made by a human, and then an article gets created that along the lines of “The 5 Most Popular Movies in San Francisco this Weekend” or “Where to Eat Now in Oakland”. It’s basically AI taking big data and playing Madlibs.

Back in 2010, when hyper local blogs were reporting the goings-on of every neighborhood, a blog called Haighteration launched to cover all the happenings in the Lower Haight. Eventually it expanded to a couple more neighborhoods and then in 2014 it relaunched as Hoodline, a network of neighborhood specific blogs covering everything from district races to crime to interviews with local personalities. After raising some capital, Hoodline put together a great stable of writers and editors in each neighborhood, and did a bang-up job reporting the minutia of life in each locale.

In 2016 they were bought by another company, which eventually led to getting rid of their dozens of writers and editors, and now they are the monstrosity that is trying to essentially replace journalists with robots. Somehow this “news wire service” only has four writers and a couple editors, yet several data scientists and engineers.

I know right now some of you are saying “Whoa, Stuart. What’s the big deal? They’re just doing fluff pieces for clicks.” Unfortunately that’s a short-sighted view. Hoodline claims it’s trying to fill the hole created by the disappearance of local publications. But nobody gives you $10 million just so you can find a quicker way to tell people which Marvel movie is at the box office. Lyft started as a way for college kids to carpool home for the holidays and AirBnb began as a way to rent your extra room to broke travelers. People willing to invest $10 million into “fixing local news deserts” as Tech Crunch called it, are doing so because they hope the technology will be as disruptive to the journalism business as the Lyft and AirBnb have been for transit and accommodations. Which in this case would mean lots of money for the investors and no jobs for journalists. Hoodline’s CEO, Razmig Hovaghimian, has even said as much. In a different Tech Crunch article he says that while the company currently has about two engineers for every editor, as it scales they plan on bringing more engineers and fewer editors.

As of now the four people who write for the site are still breaking news , but at this point many of the articles created for Hoodline are essentially being written by robots.

Even though robots still can’t do actual journalism, the fact that someone dreamed this up, and actually convinced people to invest in it, is the sore signifying the sickness of Silicon Valley. The major flaw with modern day journalism isn’t the people doing it or the journalism being created be them, it’s the antiquated business model that isn’t creating enough income to pay the people. That $10 million should have been used to hire brilliant minds to tackle the question of “How do we fund good journalism in the 21st century”. Instead it’s being used to figure out a way to one day get rid of journalists altogether and ultimately make the millionaire investors even richer than they already are.

Local journalism is a vital part of a city’s ecosystem and since people are investing in robots instead of working to fix the business model, it’s upon all of us to support the publications we read. If you want to help keep local journalism alive you can do so for only a few dollars a month.

Thanks for reading this article. It was written by an actual human being.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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