A leap forward in quarterly earnings stories

The Associated Press announced in an advisory to customers today that the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories for our business news report will eventually be produced using automation technology.

Here, Lou Ferrara, the AP managing editor who oversees business news, explains how this leap forward takes advantage of new technologies to free journalists to spend more time on things like beat reporting and source development while increasing, by a factor of more than 10, the volume of earnings reports for customers.

Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor

Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor

Why is the AP doing this?

Like all media companies, AP is constantly reviewing what content it needs to provide to customers and the best use of its reporting resources. At the same time, we analyze the value of the content we produce in the marketplace.

For many years, we have been spending a lot of time crunching numbers and rewriting information from companies to publish approximately 300 earnings reports each quarter. We discovered that automation technology, from a company called Automated Insights, paired with data from Zacks Investment Research, would allow us to automate short stories – 150 to 300 words — about the earnings of companies in roughly the same time that it took our reporters.

And instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter.

We believe technological automation will be a part of many businesses, including those in media. As part of its business relationship with Automated Insights, AP participated in the company’s latest round of investment financing with other strategic partners.

Does it mean we are no longer providing editorial coverage of earnings reports?

No. If anything, we are doubling down on the journalism we will do around earnings reports and business coverage.

We are going to use our brains and time in more enterprising ways during earnings season. Rather than spending a great deal of time focusing on the release of earnings and hammering out a quick story recapping each one, we are going to automate that process for all U.S. companies in the 4,400. (We are exploring whether we can automate earnings from companies outside the United States.)

Instead, 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.

AP’s staff breaks a lot of business news and obtains numerous exclusives throughout the year from many of the top companies in the world. We know that is what our customers want and we are going to deliver more of it through this process.

Are we eliminating jobs to do this?

No. This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs. In fact, most of the staff has been receptive to the effort and involved for the past few months of discussion.

How does it work?

Zacks maintains the data when the earnings reports are issued. Automated Insights has algorithms that ping that data and then in seconds output a story. The structure for the earnings reports stories was crafted by AP with Automated Insights. All conform to AP Style, the standard of journalistic style.

The stories will be labeled as being produced automatically with material from Zacks.

As we begin using automation technology in July, we will check each automatically generated report and then publish to the AP wire. As we work out any problems, we hope to move to a model of more fully automating the reports and spot-checking the feed for quality control.

Will you be automating other parts of the AP report?

Interestingly, we already have been automating a good chunk of AP’s sports agate report for several years. Data comes from STATS, the sports statistics company, and is automated and formatted into our systems for distribution. A majority of our agate is produced this way.

By comparison, though, the earnings reports are produced into stories – not just data feeds. And we are looking at whether there are other things we should be automating in this way. Last football season, we introduced an automated NFL player ranking on the website for pro football that we host for newspapers. That ranking included automated text descriptions of player performances each week, which were produced by Automated Insights. We also are examining the potential for automating results stories for lower-audience sports.

When will the automated earnings reports be available?

We are planning to go live in July, and we will be paying close attention to all of the reports as we adapt to this new process. We will address any concerns or bugs, and then keep moving ahead.

Our hope is that customers will begin to see the benefits almost immediately through more breaking business news and an increased volume of earnings reports. Many customers will receive info for companies in their markets that they never received from AP before.

Is it ISIL or ISIS in Iraq?

How best to refer to the al-Qaida splinter group leading Sunni militants in Iraq? ISIL or ISIS?

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

“We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” says John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news.

The term ISIL also avoids the common misunderstanding, stemming from the initials ISIS, that the group’s name is the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” (“Iraq and Greater Syria” might be an acceptable translation, since Greater Syria also implies the entire area of the Levant.) But saying just “Iraq and Syria” suggests incorrectly that the group’s aspirations are limited to these two present-day countries.

ISIL is also the term used by the United Nations.


This note was corrected on June 18 to reflect that al-Sham does not include Iraq.

AP “flashes” – what they’re all about

Mandela Flash

The “flash” we sent last week on Nelson Mandela’s death brought a new flurry of attention to AP flashes. What are they and how often do we send them?

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed: “Bells ringing signaling election of a pope.”

In the old days when AP subscribers received news over teletype machines, a flash rang a series of bells on the machine, sending editors rushing to see what was happening. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash, but AP teletype operators had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.

Kennedy Flash

Today, AP editors still put a “flash” designation on stories (by clicking a “flash priority” button on our editing screens). That marks the item electronically as being a flash and may insert the word “FLASH” into the story as well. But subscribers set their computer systems to react to that code in different ways. Some systems sound an audible alarm or pop up the flash in the middle of the editor’s screen. Other systems may simply move the flash into the queue of other urgent stories. (AP identifies less transcendent, but still urgent, breaking news as “APNewsAlerts” without the flash designation.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

Here are some of our other flashes from the past 10 years:

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics

_ Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency

_ Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses

AP editors’ note on Manning

Update: The following advisory was sent to AP member editors and other subscribers on Aug. 26, 2013, at 6:03 p.m.:

The Associated Press will henceforth use Pvt. Chelsea E. Manning and female pronouns for the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning, in accordance with her wishes to live as a woman.

Manning announced her wishes last Thursday after being sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth military prison and a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army for revealing U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks, the anti-establishment website.

Manning’s statement was reiterated, with additional detail, in a blog posting (http://www.armycourtmartialdefense.info/) and an interview with The Associated Press on Monday by defense attorney David E. Coombs.

The use of the first name Chelsea and feminine pronouns in Manning’s case is in conformity with the transgender guidance in the AP Stylebook. The guidance calls for using the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

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The following note was sent to AP member and subscriber editors on Aug. 22, 2013, at 7:46 p.m. ET:

Editors:

The Associated Press policy as stated in the AP Stylebook is to comply with the gender identity preference of an individual.

At this time, the AP is seeking more details about the gender change statement attributed to Pfc. Bradley Manning that was read Thursday on the “Today” show in the presence of defense attorney David Coombs. The typewritten statement said “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” and asked supporters to use “my new name and use the feminine pronoun” in gender references to the U.S. Army soldier. Manning’s lawyers had raised the issue of gender identity during the trial, but Thursday’s statement went further.

Manning was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in Leavenworth military prison for providing secret U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-establishment website.

With Manning in custody and unavailable to comment, the AP is seeking additional information about the statement from Coombs, who did not immediately respond to email and telephone messages.

For the time being, AP stories will use gender-neutral references to Manning and provide the pertinent background on the transgender issue. However, when reporting is completed, the AP Stylebook entry on “transgender” will be AP’s guide.

That stylebook entry states: “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. “

The AP

‘Illegal immigrant’ no more

The AP Stylebook today is making some changes in how we describe people living in a country illegally.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the thinking behind the decision:

The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

Why did we make the change?

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed “illegal immigrant” as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that “illegal immigrant” was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

So we have.

Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.

Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.

I suspect now we will hear from some language lovers who will find other labels in the AP Stylebook. We welcome that engagement. Get in touch at stylebook@ap.org  or, if you are an AP Stylebook Online subscriber, through the “Ask the Editor” page.

Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.

The updated entry is being added immediately to the AP Stylebook Online and Manual de Estilo Online de la AP, the new Spanish-language Stylebook. It also will appear in the new print edition and Stylebook Mobile, coming out later in the spring. It reads as follows:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.