How local news helped Callie Crossley with her research for ‘Eyes on the Prize’

Callie Crossley. Photo via GBH News.

Callie Crossley of GBH News is a multitalented broadcast journalist and producer. She hosts “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and shares radio essays each Monday on GBH’s “Morning Edition.” She also hosts “Basic Black,” which covers news events that have an impact on communities of color. Crossley’s work on “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” won numerous awards.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Ellen and Dan, Crossley shares her views on the thinning out of local news outlets and offers sage advice for next-generation journalists. Callie and Dan were regulars on “Beat the Press,” the award-winning GBH-TV show that featured media commentary, which ended its 22-year run in 2021. In 2019, both of them received the Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

In Quick Takes on developments in local news, Dan laments the rise of robot journalism, and Ellen reports on an effort by publisher Lee Enterprises to fight off a takeover bid by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

The latest bad idea for chain newspapers: Robot reporting on real estate

Tom Breen of the New Haven Independent covers real-estate transactions the old-fashioned way. Photos (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.

The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.

United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”

Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:

Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.

Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.

In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.

A note Breen left behind asking the resident to call him. (Phone number removed.)

Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.

We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.

“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”

The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:

Tenants of a three-family ​lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.

You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.

Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.

Bad sign: Here’s how Breen and I were greeted at one foreclosed-upon property. (Names removed.)

At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.

And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.

Can artificial intelligence help local news? Sure. And it can cause great harm as well.

Image via Pixabay

Read the rest at GBH News.

I’ll admit that I was more than a little skeptical when the Knight Foundation announced last week that it would award $3 million in grants to help local news organizations use artificial intelligence. My first reaction was that dousing the cash with gasoline and tossing a match would be just as effective.

But then I started thinking about how AI has enhanced my own work as a journalist. For instance, just a few years ago I had two unappetizing choices after I recorded an interview: transcribing it myself or sending it out to an actual human being to do the work at considerable expense. Now I use an automated system, based on AI, that does a decent job at a fraction of the cost.

Or consider Google, whose search engine makes use of AI. At one time, I’d have to travel to Beacon Hill if I wanted to look up state and local campaign finance records — and then pore through them by hand, taking notes or making photocopies as long as the quarters held out. These days I can search for “Massachusetts campaign finance reports” and have what I need in a few seconds.

Given that local journalism is in crisis, what’s not to like about the idea of helping community news organizations develop the tools they need to automate more of what they do?

Well, a few things, in fact.

Foremost among the downsides is the use of AI to produce robot-written news stories. Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.

Patrick White, a journalism professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, sounded this unrealistically hopeful note in a piece for The Conversation about a year ago: “Artificial intelligence is not there to replace journalists or eliminate jobs.” According to one estimate cited by White, AI would have only a minimal effect on newsroom employment and would “reorient editors and journalists towards value-added content: long-form journalism, feature interviews, analysis, data-driven journalism and investigative journalism.”

Uh, Professor White, let me introduce you to the two most bottom line-obsessed newspaper publishers in the United States — Alden Global Capital and Gannett. If they could, they’d unleash the algorithms to cover everything up to and including city council meetings, mayoral speeches and development proposals. And if they could figure out how to program the robots to write human-interest stories and investigative reports, well, they’d do that too.

Another danger AI poses is that it can track scrolling and clicking patterns to personalize a news report. Over time, for instance, your Boston Globe would look different from mine. Remember the “Daily Me,” an early experiment in individualized news popularized by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte? That didn’t quite come to pass. But it’s becoming increasingly feasible, and it represents one more step away from a common culture and a common set of facts, potentially adding another layer to the polarization that’s tearing us apart.

“Personalization of news … puts the public record at risk,” according to a report published in 2017 by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “When everyone sees a different version of a story, there is no authoritative version to cite. The internet has also made it possible to remove content from the web, which may not be archived anywhere. There is no guarantee that what you see will be what everyone sees — or that it will be there in the future.”

Of course, AI has also made journalism better — and not just for transcribing interviews or Googling public records. As the Tow Center report also points out, AI makes it possible for investigative reporters to sift through thousands of records to find patterns, instances of wrongdoing or trends.

The Knight Foundation, in its press release announcing the grant, held out the promise that AI could reduce costs on the business side of news organizations — a crucial goal given how financially strapped most of them are. The $3 million will go to The Associated Press, Columbia University, the NYC Media Lab and the Partnership on AI. Under the terms of the grant, the four organizations will work together on projects such as training local journalists, developing revenue strategies and studying the ethical use of AI. It all sounds eminently worthy.

But there are always unintended consequences. The highly skilled people whom I used to pay to transcribe my interviews no longer have those jobs. High school students who might have gotten an opportunity to write up the exploits of their sports teams for a few bucks have been deprived of a chance at an early connection with news — an experience that might have turned them into paying customers or even journalists when they got older.

And local news, much of which is already produced at distant outposts, some of them overseas, is about to become that much more impersonal and removed from the communities they serve.