By Kevin Roderick, August 14, 2013
Earthquake: 3.0 quake strikes near Hawthorne, Nevada
The LA Times newsroom just isn't the savviest place when it comes to using technology. Oh, the editors like technology well enough. But they sometimes seem more in love with apps, tech toys and the latest trends than with actual news judgment or the LA Times product. That's why you get robo-stories like this one, which last night lead the L.A. Now and California news section on LA Times.com.
A 3.0 earthquake 44 miles from Hawthorne, Nevada probably doesn't register as a news event even in Hawthorne, Nevada. And since Hawthorne is small, remote and roughly 400 miles from Los Angeles — and feels even further, believe me — an earthquake there that does no damage and is barely felt by any humans isn't news way down here in Los Angeles. For that matter, a 3.0 quake wouldn't really be LA news even if the epicenter was under City Hall. But these non-event quakes, many smaller than magnitude 3.0 — the Times recently gave equal play to a 2.7! — all get the same exaggerated treatment on the Times website. Twelve hours later, the only coverage on Google News of last night's mini-quake in the mountains outside of Hawthorne, Nevada is from the LA Times. Not even Nevada media care.
These quake stories on the LA Times site are the equivalent of shovelware: generated automatically by software with no reporter or editor making a case-by-case call on news value. When a quake of a certain minimum magnitude occurs near California, the Times digitally regurgitates the data automatically generated by the USGS Earthquake Notification Service. Whether the info is correct or not, a story is published to the Times website listing the quake's distance from three or four locations, none of which are selected for their relevance to LA Times readers, with the preliminary magnitude (which, of course, often changes downward) and a generic map. There is zero context or news analysis — damage? injuries? felt by anyone? — but there is a generic grab of the USGS data on recent quakes in the area. So you get this oddball line in the Hawthorne story: "In the past 10 days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or greater centered nearby." Really, that many?
You can recognize these robo-stories by the boilerplate: "This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author." The byline belongs to ace data desk producer Ken Schwencke, who apparently figured out the way to do this. That's great — cool toy — and the Times is proud that it has programmers who can grab and feed non-news to the reading public without involving a human decision maker. But maybe someone should have asked why do this?
Maybe, like so much else at the Times, they do it for web traffic at the expense of product. It wouldn't be that hard to wait a few minutes and manually post earthquake news when it actually is news, like they do with police arrests or traffic accidents or votes in Congress. But that would sacrifice a few web hits. This way, the Times has a robo-story up quickly to grab Google hits and trick people into tweeting, thinking it's from the LA Times so this quake must be newsworthy. Suckered again. I follow everything in the news about earthquakes, as an Angeleno and a science head and a journalist, and I just assume now that every LA Times quake headline is overstated, since most are. The Times might have the most quake headlines, but it feels like tech for tech's sake. Quantity over quality.