A Million Monkeys: The Effect of Automation on the Editorial Industry


Automation, as the ONS have just decreed in the form of over one million at-risk-to-robots jobs, is about to change the working landscape beyond recognition. Having already re-moulded the retail industry, in the form of self-service checkouts to give one prominent example, AI look set to advance on further industries, with accountants and taxi drivers some of the occupations now looking over their proverbial shoulder.

There is still a general consensus, however, that AI excels in industries that rely on repetitive, routine tasks – shelf-stacking, order-taking; number-crunching – and is less inclined to be about to do away with high-skilled professions that rely on complex, critical thinking. Does this mean that the editorial industry, to take one such example, is exempt from the robotic revolution to come?

Strength in Statistics

To answer this, let’s set aside for the time being the writing of magazine features and focus instead on news. Many media services have already tapped into the idea of widespread, fast-paced news placement by providing daily bundles of syndicated editorial that offer cost-effective ways for news services to keep their sites stocked with juicy news without having to worry too much on salary-costs or fluctuating editorial standards.

Bite-sized news bulletins of this sort could well be the first editorial premise to rely solely on AI. The Associated Press, for example, already make full use of automation to generate data-based excepts on a rate of nearly 15x that of “manual efforts”.

The transition from raw data, scraped from the farthest reaches of the internet, into publishable story lends itself well to an algorithm’s strengths. This will no doubt sow a modicum of doubt among junior writers in, say, the financial sector, even if AP suggest that automation is used to lessen the burden of quarterly earning stories on its human workforce – seen here as virtually indistinguishable to a manually-written story.

The Personal Touch

The necessity of factual input to any well-written piece notwithstanding, many in the industry will no doubt take heart in their own natural talents for penmanship in the face of AI incursions in print. I can only speak to my own experience – which centres on the world of interview feature writing – but the Oxford University study that gives PR specialists (with whom I arguably identify) only an 18% chance of being replaced by AI in the next two decades appears to corroborate this.

Altogether, it points to the fact that the editorial industry has survived vast changes over recent years with the advent of the internet thanks largely to the personal connection made between author and reader. Few robots could hope to emulate the sort of writing demonstrated by the Hunter S Thompsons and Lester Bangs’ of this world, or – to give some less extreme examples – the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, or the NY Times’ Taffy Brodesser-Anker. (You may agree or disagree with the names provided…but that is, in essence, the point.)

Chatbots & Chimpanzees

This question of natural talents vs robotic learning, however, does throw up some concerning irregularities. Robots have already begun to play football (albeit hilariously) and win against chess Grand Masters. According to the World Economic Forum, AI will have written a NY Times Bestseller by 2049.

Indeed, by the time 2011 had rolled around – practically the dark ages in terms of automation – a group (troop?) of infinite monkey typists had assembled more than 5 trillion of the 5.5 possible trillion nine-letter combinations in the works of William Shakespeare. They had even written the entirety of the Bard’s seminal sonnet, A Lover’s Complaint, at random. A New Yorker lead was seemingly inevitable.

Or not. The recent history of automatons attempting human interaction has been patchy to say the least. The kind of patchiness that leads to a Twitter chatbot called ‘Tay’ going from “humans are super cool” to “ricky gervais learned totalitarianism from adolf hitler” in under 24 hours. Imagine such a program sent under the auspices of a glossy mag to a film star’s home or junket. Rogue Tweets can be hastily deleted from cyberspace; the fallout from your AI hurling racial epithets at Dame Helen Mirren, less so.

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