In the age of automation, can journalists compete with computers?
Computers writing stories. Reporter jobs vanishing. Pulitzer Prize winners quitting to go into public relations. What the heck is going on in the world of journalism?
The short answer is that the U.S. Labor Department reports that some 12,000 reporting jobs have disappeared in the last decade. And hopes for a turnaround aren’t good.
Many newspapers, facing difficult economic trends, have reduced overhead by outsourcing pagination, ad production, printing and circulation. While many publishers tried to protect their newsrooms, reporting jobs have also been slashed. Meanwhile, computers have been programmed to write up to 5,000 stories a minute. One company, Automated Insights, claims its computers have already written 1 billion stories.
Yahoo! Sports, Forbes Magazine and now The Associated Press have turned to computer software to write stories — presumably replacing human writers and editors by the thousands.
So bleak is the picture, reports The Washington Post, that even recent Pulitzer Prize winners are quitting their jobs to take higher- paying, more secure jobs in public relations. Rob Kuzina, who won the Pulitzer Prize while working at the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., was quoted by the Columbia Journalism Review: “I could make my rent (on his reporter’s salary), but it was difficult,” he said. “It was getting to the point of being scary.”
How can humans — who need to eat, pay rent and raise children — compete with computers?
After a successful effort to publish business earnings reports, the AP started using technology to write stories about college baseball games.
In a press release, the AP’s Barry Bedlan said: “This new partnership will allow AP to cover more college sports of interest to our members and their audiences. This will mean thousands of more stories on the AP wire … Every college sports town will have some level of coverage.”
Poynter’s Ed Sherman quoted AP vice president of sports Lou Ferrara as calling computerized sports writing to be “our next wave … In an age of Twitter … the value of those traditional games stories has declined for our customers.”
Ferrara said computer-generated game stories will eventually make their way into Major League Baseball and National Football League games. AP reporters will continue to staff major games but will be looking to do more storytelling and breaking news.
Ferrara says the AP will use the technology to cover events the wire service couldn’t otherwise provide, and that members and customers will get more stories than they could otherwise afford.
Computerized sports writing already was used by Yahoo! Sports for fantasy football previews and recaps. Forbes uses a similar technology to produce business stories.
National Public Radio recently staged a “race” between a veteran human reporter and a computer program called Wordsmith that was designed by Automated Insights. Both “contestants” wrote a story about Denny’s Restaurants’ earnings.
The computer finished in two minutes, while the human contestant took 7.5 minutes. (The computer supposedly could write another 9,999 stories during the same two-minute period.)
The computer wrote: “Denny’s Corp. on Monday reported firstquarter profit of $8.5 million. The Spartanburg, S.C.-based company said it had profit of 10 cents per share. The results beat Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of four analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of 9 cents per share.”
The human wrote: “Denny’s Corp. notched a grand slam of its own in the first quarter, earning a better-than-expected ten cents a share, as restaurant sales jumped by more than 7 percent. Operating revenues topped $120 million. Adjusted net income jumped 36 percent to $8.7 million. Denny’s is one of the nation’s largest full-service restaurant chains. The growth in sales suggests consumers are opening their pocketbooks for pancakes, eggs, and hash browns…”
The computer was clearly faster, the human more stylish. The CFOs I know care little for style.
What future is there for incoming human journalists?
“These are weird times,” said Tom Warhover, chair of the print and digital news faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “There’s an amazing growth in tools to help journalists better tell stories at the same time that there’s this ongoing contraction for paid journalists. All these changes force us to think about teaching what is really important outside the traditional silo of print newspapers. We need to teach our students how to make the best use of all the great technological tools, and do the best we can.”
What can we expect as news consumers? My guess: More computer-generated news, more well-crafted public relations content showing up in our media, and more sponsored-content disguised as news.
I’d also predict a backlash. Some, perhaps many, of us will be willing to pay for quality journalism written by humans educated as reporters and editors. Marc Wilson is CEO of TownNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.