Conversational journalism: ISOJ 2017 will discuss how bots and artificial intelligence are changing news delivery

During the 2016 election, New York Times political correspondent Nicholas Confessore sat at his desk scripting conversations with readers almost every day. His conversations were then plugged into The New York Times politics bot where readers could interact with “Nick” and follow his reporting through a series of prompted questions.

Andrew Phelps (Courtesy photo)

Over the past year, The Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN are just a few of the outlets who have experimented with conversation bots. The technology isn’t new, but according to Andrew Phelps, The New York Times product director, it’s part of a larger trend of personalization within the journalism industry.

“It was a way of bringing readers closer to the story and closer to the journalists,” Phelps told the Knight Center. “In journalism at-large, we’re seeing a movement towards a much more personal relationship between readers and news organizations and I think the rise of bots at this moment is partly because they facilitate these more personal interactions.”

Phelps will discuss “Conversational journalism: How bots and artificial intelligence can get us there” on April 21, at the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ). He will be joined by John Keefe, bot developer and product manager at Quartz Bot Studio; Joey Marburger, director of product at The Washington Post; Travis Swicegood, director of engineering at Condé Nast ATX; and panel chair and presenter Sanette Tanaka, product designer at Vox Media.

Sanette Tanaka (Courtesy photo)

At The Times, Phelps said the idea to use bots to generate conversations with readers arose during the 2016 Rio Olympics. They had their deputy sports editor Sam Manchester experiment with reporting via SMS messages by having his text observations about the Olympics sent to readers signed up for updates.

“Sam really found his voice and was able to bring people close to the story in a way that no one else could have,” Phelps said. “There’s plenty of coverage at the Olympics — lots of video and pictures and all that. But with this, you could actually interact with Sam and in some cases, he would actually write back.”

While most of the feedback they received was positive, Phelps said it was clear Manchester couldn’t personally respond to every reader writing to him. Because of that, they became interested in experimenting with the technology and striking the right balance between functionality and the humanity and  personality of their reporters.

“It really got us intrigued about how we might find ways to automate the smarts of our reporters and I think people have really responded to having this personal guidance to major news events,” Phelps said. “How we might cover future big events in this sort of hybrid automated-human way is the sweet spot we want to explore more.”

Joey Marburger(Courtesy photo)

Though the technology is becoming more popular and accessible, Phelps said the challenge is making sure it’s actually useful to readers. Often, he says people try to get involved with the technology before asking what need it serves..

“There’s a lot of experiments [with bots] that are great — they’re novel and interesting, but no one’s using them after one or two times,” Phelps said. “That’s because the bot’s not actually solving a problem or adding anything to your life. It’s just entertaining. The big challenge is figuring out how to make a bot that’s actually useful in a news context.”

As far as the effect bots are actually going to have on the newsroom, Washington Post director of product Joey Marburger said they’re unlikely to play a large role in consumption. Instead, he thinks they’ll be helpful by engaging with readers.

“Bots really aren’t going to be the biggest new platform for consumption,” Marburger explained to the Knight Center. “People aren’t going to go straight to a bot and start asking about stories, but as it becomes easier to interact with them, it could help increase engagement. If you’re already reading a story, a bot could help answer questions about it or suggest other stories to look at.”

The Post has also been experimenting with using the technology to venture into the world of automated storytelling since the Olympics. With Heliograf, they’ve used artificial intelligence to find data and generate brief multi-sentence updates to tackle coverage for big events. Marburger said when integrating this technology into the newsroom, the main benefit is freeing up time for journalists to work on bigger stories instead of brief updates.

Travis Swicegood (Courtesy photo)

“If you talk to a copy editor, something like putting in links or different types of photos into stories seems like it’s just a small task,” Marburger said. “But if you can automate it, those are hours back in your day to enhance other stories and I think that benefit will make it easier to bring that technology into the newsroom.”

Sanette Tanaka, product designer at Vox Media, said she doesn’t see artificial intelligence or bots replacing journalists. Instead, she also sees them freeing up valuable time for reporters by assisting them with research — something that will become a reality as the technology continues to become more readily available.

“The same way that bots help provide contextual information to news consumers, they can also help in a newsroom,” Tanaka told the Knight Center. “It’s easy to envision a bot that functions as a kind of research assistant, which can be used to scan data and help reporters uncover trends.”

Travis Swicegood, director of engineering at Condé Nast ATX, said bots are already being used for data visualization. Swicegood explained that, right now, the technology is just providing a starting point for journalists to begin their research. The next step in their evolution will be processing information and relaying what they find.

John Keefe (Courtesy photo)

“Imagine sentiment analysis on social media posts, so rather than knowing the politician you’re covering is tweeting — what Twitter’s notifications currently do — your friendly bot lets you know when they deviate from the norm. […] Providing the starting point is where the technology shines right now. I think it will get to a point where it could be standalone, but for now its role is that of helped,” he explained to the Knight Center.

In an interview with the Nieman Lab, John Keefe, bot developer and product manager at Quartz Bot Studio, said while the use of bots grew rapidly in 2016, more needs to be done before the technology becomes mainstream.

“My sense is that it has to be things that are going to get your attention, hold your attention, and be a great experience,” Keefe said. “So that’s kind of a high bar, right? It has to be a really good experience. It has to be a positive experience. And in the news world, also a useful experience.”

Registration for the 18th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) has been closed. However, livestreaming will be available on isoj.org, Facebook and YouTube.