Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

War of the Worlds (journalism edition)

Posted on | May 10, 2012 | 2 Comments

Get ready for robo-reporters. Not in a decade; not in a few years but now.

Steven Levy writes in a recent Wired article that a company that burst forth from the loins of one of the country’s great j-schools, Medill at Northwestern, has a product that creates narrative stories out of data. Narrative Science, for example, will take a pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play summary of a baseball game and turn it into a readable, accurate description of the game.

“Narrative Science‚Äôs algorithms built the article using pitch-by-pitch game data that parents entered into an iPhone app called GameChanger. Last year the software produced nearly 400,000 accounts of Little League games. This year that number is expected to top 1.5 million.”

As Levy puts it, Little League games may be the sizzle, but financial reports could be the steak.

So you knew this was coming right? We’ve already waded into the shark-infested swamp with Indian and Pakistani writers churning out news stories for local newspapers about town meetings they couldn’t cover, all by reading the meetings’ minutes online. It hasn’t fared too well, but you see where things are headed.

These technological invasions of our sacred profession seem life-threatening every time they land on Earth. The Internet. Newspapers ignored the threat until it was almost too late, but they’re finally transforming, albeit slowly and less than elegantly. Mobile technology was a huge opportunity for traditional media, and that train may have left the station.

In any case, traditional media is still breathing. Embrace this kind of technology–no matter how counterintuitive it seems–and free your staff to do what they do best: find sources, build relationships and tell compelling, provocative stories.

The more open-minded among the inked-stained wretch set is waking up to the fact that there are a lot of things we shouldn’t be doing any more, and acting like stenographers on our own valuable time is one of them.

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2 Responses to “War of the Worlds (journalism edition)”

  1. Peter Clarke
    May 12th, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    I heard about similar stuff in the financial community being tried several years ago.

    An automated program was able to take data from an earnings release and from past earnings releases and then produce a human-readable article that detailed rising and falling profits and sales revenues etc.

    Rather the formulaic but the key thing was that it was fast, fractions of a second, which matters in financial markets.

    The irony is that I also heard that these human-readable articles were being read by software programs to drive trading in the company’s stock.

    I guess it wasn’t that successful/reliable because having read about it in the FT or WSJ about five years ago I have not heard anything about it since….until now.

  2. Brian
    May 13th, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    Peter, thank you for your comment. I think we need to adopt some of these technologies going forward (curation, machine-readable content) to free ourselves to do what we do best, mine relationships and tell stories.

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