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Earnings reports have always been a staple feature of Associated Press business news, with reporters producing around 300 stories per quarter on items such as the net income and sales of public companies.

However, since the outlet began using automation to produce earnings reports, the volume of stories has leaped to 3,700 per quarter, according to Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor at AP.

Speaking at the World New Media Congress in Washington DC, Ferrara said that using automation has freed up staff time at AP by around 20 per cent.

"This is really a change to get out of existing for earnings reports, and instead having earnings reports but also focusing on news desk, on social, UGC, what's going viral, all this stuff we know... is essential," said Ferrara.

The issue with earnings reports, he explained, was that they were not only time-consuming to produce but the work was also not well-liked by AP journalists, with one reporter likening it to "jabbing your eyes out on a daily basis".

In addition, journalists were doing all their own manual calculations to produce the reports, which Ferrara said had "potential for error".

But the bottom line was he thought AP business journalists "had better things to do with their time".

Ferrara began testing automation in December 2012, although the process was not ready for "semi-live testing" until last summer.

AP partnered with financial firms who were already producing structured data, such as Zacks Investment Research, which was more efficient than collating the stats in-house.

During testing, the earnings reports were produced via automation and journalists compared them to the relevant press release and figured out bugs before publishing them.

A team of five reporters worked on the project, and Ferrara said they still had to check for everything a journalist would normally check for, from spelling mistakes to whether the calculations were correct.

However, Ferrara's goal was to get beyond that and "get directly to the AP wire," something that was achieved in October 2014.

As a result, he said AP has freed up staff time by one fifth. He describes it as the perfect solution for producing reports for which there is a high customer demand, while freeing up his relatively small team to work on stories and projects which require more of a human element. 

"This has allowed us [to] reconfigure our reporting assignments all over the place, as well as our core business news desk," he said.

What's more, Ferrara estimates that by the end of the year AP will be up to 4,700 reports per quarter going straight to the wire.

In the future, as the automation process is improved further, AP could potentially automate stories on any topic which uses structured data, he said, from data visualisations to election coverage.

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