Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy
Among the more venerable local news startups in the Boston area is YourArlington, which has been publishing in one form or another since 2006. Founded by veteran journalist Bob Sprague, the digital-only site in the past couple of years has gone nonprofit, added a governing board, and hired an editor, Judith Pfeffer, who succeeded Sprague when he retired during the summer. YourArlington offers fairly comprehensive coverage of the town and has paid freelancers. (Disclosure: Some of those paid freelancers have been Northeastern students, and I’ve been asked to speak at Sprague’s retirement party in November.)
So imagine my surprise when I read Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray’s story about Inside Arlington, a new project that is mainly produced by artificial intelligence: feed in the transcript of a select board meeting and publish what comes out the other side. Mainly I was surprised that Bray let cofounder Winston Chen get away with this whopper: “The town of Arlington, for practical purposes, is a news desert.” Bray offered no pushback, and there’s no mention of YourArlington. (Gannett merged the weekly Arlington Advocate with the Winchester Star about a year and a half ago and eliminated nearly all town-based coverage in favor of regional stories. There’s also a local Patch.)
Bray is properly skeptical, noting that several experiments in AI-generated stories have come to a bad end and that there’s no substitute for having a reporter on site who can ask follow-up questions. Still, there’s no question that AI news reporting is coming. Nieman Lab recently reported on a hyperlocal news organization in California that’s been giving AI a workout, although that organization — so far — has had the good sense not to publish the results.
But it’s disheartening to see the Globe take at face value the claim that Arlington lacks a local news organization. Scanning through YourArlington right now, I see a story about affordable housing that was posted today, a restaurant review, a story and photos from Town Day and a reception for the new town manager. Such coverage is the lifeblood of community journalism, and it can’t be replicated with AI — and I don’t see any of it at Inside Arlington.
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