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A print newspaper generated by robots: Is this the future of media or just a sideshow?

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What if you could pick up a printed newspaper, but instead of a handful of stories hand-picked by a secret cabal of senior editors in a dingy newsroom somewhere, it had pieces that were selected based on what was being shared — either by your social network or by users of Facebook, Twitter etc. as a whole? Would you read it? More importantly, would you pay for it?

You can’t buy one of those yet, but The Guardian (see disclosure below) is bringing an experimental print version it has been working on to the United States for the first time: a printed paper that is generated entirely — or almost entirely — by algorithms based on social-sharing activity and other user behavior by the paper’s readers. Is this a glimpse into the future of newspapers?

According to Digiday, the Guardian‘s offering — known as #Open001 — is being rolled out later this week. But you won’t be able to pick one up at the corner store: only 5,000 copies will be printed each month, and they are going to the offices of media and ad agencies. In other words, it’s as much a marketing effort at this point for the Guardian (which isn’t printed in the U.S.) as it is a publishing experiment.

Robots write news — why not edit it as well?

As tiny an experiment as it is, however, the Guardian project raises some interesting questions. A paper produced by robots (or at least algorithms) isn’t all that different from tools like or even the “Most Shared” feature that many newspapers have now on their websites. Sharing-analytics company NewsWhip recently put together a look at what front pages might look like if they were based on what people actually shared. But is that what we want from a newspaper?

The Guardian‘s latest project is based on a similar experiment it has been running for the past six months or so in Britain, one that generates a printed paper called “The Long Good Read,” made up of some of the best long-form content from the Guardian and its sister paper The Observer. It’s available for free once a week at the Guardian‘s public coffee shop in the London neighborhood of Shoreditch (a shop that is an interesting experiment in itself, as I’ve discussed before).

The Long Good Read started as a joint venture with The Newspaper Club, a company that prints small-run custom newspapers, and was based on work done by former Guardian developer Dan Catt as a side project — a way of automatically collecting the best reads from the paper for later reading, as either an RSS feed or a sharing feature similar to Longreads.

As the editor behind Long Good Reads explained in a blog post, the paper uses algorithms — including the Guardian‘s own in-house tool for tracking which stories are the most read and the most shared — and generates a list, which The Newspaper Club robot lays out in newspaper style. All the human editor does is check to see if any stories are out of date by the time it gets to the printing stage, and/or fiddle with the layout a bit. The whole process takes about an hour.

“Sometimes what the Guardian decides to put on its front page or home page matches what the users are reading, other times everyone seems to be focusing on something else, with twitter, facebook and other sites acting as a back channel. Editors are our first filter, the readers are our second.”


Will we miss the serendipity factor?

Obviously, neither the Long Good Reads project nor #Open001 are going to replace The Guardian or any other printed newspaper any time soon. One is a monthly publication and the other is weekly, and they are aimed at what — for now, at least — are fairly niche markets. Nevertheless, we clearly have the ability to print newspapers tailored to our interests. But should we?

The benefit of tools like — which allows Twitter users to create a custom digital “newspaper” view of all the links that have been shared by people they follow — or even customized digital magazines like the ones Flipboard launched last year, or Facebook’s new Paper app, is that we can create a specialized news-feed that is targeted directly at our interests, via our social graph.

One of the downsides of this approach, however, as explained by Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser (who is now, somewhat ironically, a co-founder of the viral-content engine Upworthy) is that we potentially become surrounded by things we already agree with, instead of being challenged or exposed to different ideas.

This is why news-recommendation engines like Prismatic try to engineer what they call “serendipity” features, so that everything you see isn’t a homogeneous mass of things you have already expressed an interest in. Newspaper editors also (theoretically at least) choose to print stories that might not be sexy or interesting, but are important in some way. Can we teach robots how to do that too?

Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Ociacia as well as NewsWhip and The Long Good Read

20 Responses to “A print newspaper generated by robots: Is this the future of media or just a sideshow?”

  1. Liz Kirchner

    “… we potentially become surrounded by things we already agree with, instead of being challenged or exposed to different ideas.”: the heart of the matter, but relegated to the tenth para of an 11-para piece about a chill and tinny algorithm where your journalistic instinct should be.

  2. Tony Cummins

    Front page of our regional daily this morning featured an overnight local coal mine collapse with two men dead and others injured. Page 13, a story about hip hop artist, Xzibit, sneaking into town for a gig at a local pub. Pretty sure “Robo Journo” would have Xzibit as the lead story. Completely agree with David Walsh & Derek Speed…should we buid it?…will it be downright dangerous? The world is losing it’s ability to empathise and to think without this to speed things up.

  3. Garry Gitzen

    I ask: How much s_ _ _ can you read or more importantly care to read about stuff you already know about. I believe the burnout factor will surface every few years and you will drop out. How far or when will the interests again bubble up, who knows.

  4. I’d say my local newspaper is 80% wire and syndicated fare with some local viewpoints sprinkled in. If computers could automate the layout, that would allow the papers to let go production staff and perhaps replace them with more writers.

    Kind of like what Word Press has done for news website startups.

    So, with more local writing, yes, these papers could sell. It’s the kerning, tracking, etc., that would be done by machine. The local stories would still have to be written, and the computer could figure out a formula to fill in other spaces with wire fare.

  5. David Walsh

    So, let me get this right. If a national economy is melting down, or some other important issue happens to take place on the same day that a minor celebrity is, oh I dunno, arrested for drink driving then because the celebrity story is “trending” and economic meltdown isn’t ( ‘cos it ain’t sexy) our robo-paper will lead with the idiot celebrity story ? It would probably ignore the important social issues that aren’t “trending”. Sound idiotic at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

  6. Although this is an idea, it is not necessarily original. Syndication is an old device used by many newspapers and it is no different from many other (sort of) tier two sharers including LinkedIn. Someone still has to write the original material that is meaningful to humans. I can re-write the poem by T.S.Eliot “The Hollow Men” using different words…but that doesn’t make it original…probably more of a plagiarist. But in this case you can’t really take the algorithm to court. I don’t think we are in any danger of losing our right to ‘write’ original ideas.

    Fact is, most great works are built on the work of many giants…from architects to literature. Originals are still rare.

    Keep on inventing.

  7. Derek Speed

    So, you won’t be creating any jobs, then, go figure, every company on earth is doing the same thing. Resorting to automation to eliminate employees, so the C.E.O can get a bigger bonus. This is an excellent economic strategy, it works perfectly for long term sustained poverty in Billions worlds wide. You’re so fascinated with what you can build, you never stop to think if you should.

  8. Gray Whitley [+] photojournal

    .wonderful technology!
    …however, it’s an interesting/corporate excuse to make up for all the very human newspaper staff now out of a job because of bad consulting and even worse decisions made by board members who have nothing to do with a news organization.

  9. Sylvain Bériault

    Just like the RockN’Rollin Press it targets people who can’t talk, can’t read and can’t think. It turns everything Objective into predigested Subjective nonsense intended to feed Social Robots… It simply sets the prelude to World Communisation. Anhilating Individuality –

  10. Christopher Greenaway Independent Business Publisher

    Philip K Dick predicted this 50 years ago; many of his stories contained references to the homeostatic newspapers or ‘homeopapes’ which were buried deep underground, collating data from all over the world and autonomously creating newspapers from the aggregate.

  11. John Pettitt

    Homan editors surface stories that are important, but not yet popular. This is something robots can’t (yet) do. At the moment if we relied on popularity we’d get our news from upworthy and buzzfeed :-)

  12. snuggles

    Judging by the low expectations I have of my city’s two major newspapers, I don’t see how it can be any worse. Granted, I don’t expect it to be any better, but when you’re close to rock bottom from a story standpoint, then what’s the harm?