Ice House

The Houston Chronicle Is Now Using Robots to Write Stories

What does this mean for our local paper?

By Morgan Kinney May 24, 2019 Published in the June 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead

Did you hear about the Houston Chronicle’s recent hire? Her name is Hoodline, and you will be pleased to hear that she never misses deadline or makes typos. She doesn’t even need a desk.

Founded in 2016 as a hyperlocal news startup out of San Francisco, Hoodline functions as a wire service akin to the Associated Press or Reuters, except stories are generated using artificial intelligence to harness business data, social media, and information from other sources that populate various pre-determined story types. Companies as big as CBS, ABC, and Hearst, the Chronicle’s parent company, have adopted the service, and you’ll now see the “Hoodline Wire Services” byline on such classics as “Here are Houston’s top 5 breakfast and brunch spots” and “Light rainfall to continue in Houston.”

Hoodline Head of Partnerships Jason Hwang seems to anticipate our first question: “No, robots aren’t running wild.” Data journalists formulate the appropriate story templates, and human editors review each story. Media partners, Hwang adds, have found the articles—mostly short, plainly written items about high school sports, business openings and closings, and weather—garner incredible traffic, and that small business owners especially love the recognition in the local paper.

While the idea of robo-stories causes us a bit of, um, discomfort, Lindita Camaj, associate professor at UH’s Valenti School of Communication, tells us our worries are mostly overblown. She sees no evidence that something like Hoodline is stealing jobs from actual humans. In fact, the service is mostly doing the work that no human actually wants to do. “Why pay a reporter to report the weather?” she says. “I just need to know whether it’s going to rain or not.”

Camaj sees services like Hoodline as a much-needed injection of innovation into the world of journalism—one that hopefully frees up more of the Chron’s crack journos to spend more time kicking butt, which they’ve done a lot of lately, by the way.

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