How to pitch a robot: Bring the data

Tips on effectively using technology from media executives at the Page Spring Seminar.

L-R: Axios' Mike Allen, Boston Globe's Peter Cherukuri, Washington Post's Jeremy Gilbert, Bechtel's Charlene Wheeless
L-R: Axios' Mike Allen, Boston Globe's Peter Cherukuri, Washington Post's Jeremy Gilbert, Bechtel's Charlene Wheeless

NEW YORK: If you find yourself pitching a story to a bot, make sure you have data, said Jeremy Gilbert of The Washington Post at the 2018 Page Society Spring Seminar.

The newspaper’s director of strategic initiatives said automated content has not been able to "inject human voices, in part because quotations are not created like structured data."

"I don’t know if we’re talking a year, or a couple years, or several, but this is going to be an important part," Gilbert said. "We’ve talked about the possibility of a bot sending a tweet to you and then asking for a response and taking in that response, but we haven’t been able to do that in a way that maintains truth."

Gilbert participated in the session, "What CCOs Need to Know about the Future of Media," with Axios cofounder Mike Allen and Peter Cherukuri, chief strategy officer at The Boston Globe. The session was moderated by Charlene Wheeless, manager of global corporate affairs at Bechtel.

AI has become an increasingly powerful force in communications and media, with some rote stories being automated by robot reporters, such as the Post’s Heliograf, which had published 850 stories as of last September. Heliograf can automatically write stories with structured data, such as election results or sporting events.

"The real surprise is that a lot of reporters have discovered they do rote and mundane tasks in their jobs that they don’t want to do. They come to us and say, "Automate this. Automate that,’" Gilbert said.

He added that AI could be applied to communications to automate repetitive tasks, such as writing press releases, but there would have to be enough data to drive those stories.

"The other question is, ‘Are you trying to tell a classical mass media story?’ If you have one story and you want to tell it the same way to everyone, you’ve lost some of that [value]," Gilbert said. "The idea that we can customize a news report and offer the information most valuable to them, suddenly the scale and ability to diversify your coverage is very useful."

Allen said that Axios, which is 15 months old, found that technology could enable elegance and simplicity for consumers in a news environment filled with noise.

"What we heard again and again is [consumers are] overwhelmed, and something else they told us again and again is, ‘When I put something aside to read later, I never do. Ever,’" Allen said. "People love clarity and simplicity in an age where we have so much noise."

For corporate communicators, that means putting out concise messages and ignoring the gut instinct to publish everything.

"We tell people that when you’re telling your story, think of it a little bit the way a politician does," Allen said. "Politicians will tell you that if you say a message again and again until you’re sick of it, it’s just barely beginning to break through. If you repeat it clearly, it breaks through.

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