In the age of au­to­ma­tion, can jour­nal­ists com­pete with com­put­ers?

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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 mar­cus@townnews.com.

Marc Wil­son

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