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AP computer will write earnings reports

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 10:33 p.m.

The nation's largest newsgathering organization says it wants its business reporters to move away from writing routine corporate earnings stories, so it is turning over those responsibilities to a computer.

The Associated Press will use software to write 150- to 300-word updates on profit or loss — and produce more of them than its human reporters ever could. It said the reliance on automated technology won't cost any reporters their jobs.

“Our customers and public have told us they want news that goes beyond the numbers,” said Lou Ferrara, the AP managing editor who oversees business news. “It's a quandary. The numbers are important, but the value of a couple of paragraphs evaporates quickly after they are out. Our readers what more.”

News Media Guild President Martha Waggoner could not be reached for comment.

AP automated reporting of sports scores and summaries, but the corporate reports will be written in narrative sentences by computers — making critical decisions on content always made by human reporters.

“I absolutely do not see this as the end of journalism as we know it,” said Kelly McBride, ethicist at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Generally, I think this is a good thing. ... Fire all the journalists? That's not going to happen.”

Ferrara said no jobs will be lost to automation, but he declined to discuss AP's business news staffing levels and whether any additions or reductions have been made in the past year.

Analyst Alan D. Mutter, a former newspaper executive who teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, said he thinks automation should work well for extremely routine stories.

“But if all they're going to do is reduce reporters, that's different,” he said. “I hope they will use the savings for higher-level reporting, such as explainers, in-depth articles, things like that.”

Ferrara said AP now publishes about 300 earnings stories each quarter by reporters who crunch the numbers and rewrite information from company reports. Once the system is fully in place, AP will be able to supply up to 4,400 earnings stories each quarter. Stories will start to appear this month.

Technology from Automated Insights Inc. of Durham, N.C., paired with data from Zacks Investment Research, will allow AP to produce the earnings stories in about the same time that it took reporters, Ferrara said.

AP is an investor in Automated Insights.

“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,” Ferrara said.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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