Automated earnings stories multiply

The Associated Press, working with Automated Insights and Zacks Investment Research, is now automatically generating more than 3,000 stories about U.S. corporate earnings each quarter, a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously. Here, Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson, who has been overseeing the rollout of this process in the newsroom, gives an update on AP’s automation efforts that began last summer.

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

What changes has AP made to the automation process?
Since automation began in July, AP has added a number of enhancements to the stories. Descriptions of businesses have been added and the stories now include forward-looking guidance provided by the companies. We are running smoothly, and always looking for opportunities, along with Zacks and AI, to improve what we are producing with automation.

What has the reaction been?
There has been a great deal of interest about how automation works from both members and readers, and overall the reaction has been incredibly positive. AP members are getting more stories about companies in their markets than ever before. We want this process to be as transparent as possible so we have added an explanation of how earnings automation works. It can be found on Automated Insights’ landing page: http://www.automatedinsights.com/ap/.

That link, and one from Zacks, is provided in the tagline of each story. We’ve also encouraged our members and subscribers to make these links available to readers when using the stories, especially online.

Internally, the reaction has been positive from staff, largely because automation has freed up valuable reporting time and reduced the amount of data-processing type work they had been doing.

How does AP ensure quality control?
Quality control was critical from the outset. We worked with Zacks and AI to make sure that every step of the process would produce stories without errors. When we launched last summer, a fair number of errors were discovered in the testing process. We then worked with Zacks and AI on solutions to ensure they wouldn’t happen again. Today, mistakes are rare. Pretty much the only time we will now have an error is if a number is entered incorrectly into the system at the beginning. Once you set up automation, and go through a rigorous testing process, you reduce the prospect of errors. In fact, we have far fewer errors than we did when we were writing earnings reports manually.

Has automation allowed staff to focus more on reporting?
Absolutely. Like all media, we are working with limited resources and it’s critical that we maximize the time reporters have to do journalism and break news. We estimate the automation of earnings reports has freed up about 20 percent of the time that we had spread throughout the staff in producing earnings reports each quarter. It is enabling us to reconfigure our business breaking news operations to be more in sync with social media and user-generated content, and focus more reporters on higher-end enterprise stories that break news that no one else has. Our goals are to break more business news than our competitors, aim higher on investigative and explanatory journalism and focus more of our work on the general consumer. We’ve got some big projects in the works. Automation is helping us free up resources to do all of these things.

What’s next?
This quarter, we are testing the automation of earnings from Canadian and European companies. We expect to add further enhancements and more companies in future quarters. My colleagues in the sports department are also exploring small-audience sports for automation in order to free staff to report news that fans and consumers do not get on the field or a broadcast. We expect to be talking about automation through the year, including at this year’s SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

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.