For the first time, automatically generated articles are becoming practical for news sources to use – this carries interesting implications for journalism and internet writing. A variety of news sites, including The Big Ten Network, have published articles generated by a computer program written by Narrative Science, a company that uses computer algorithms to generate news articles. It saves money on writers and the public can’t really tell the difference. Here’s an excerpt from an article generated by Narrative Science [from MediaBistro]:
“Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead and never looked back in a 51-17 win over UNLV on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers scored 20 points in the first quarter on a Russell Wilson touchdown pass, a Montee Ball touchdown run and a James White touchdown run. Wisconsin’s offense dominated the Rebels’ defense. The Badgers racked up 499 total yards in the game including 258 yards passing and 251 yards on the ground.”
The program, for sports articles, will even determine the MVP of the game and select a photograph to use for the article.
This is an interesting development in the “What the frick is going to happen to journalism?” question that is frequently discussed. And yeah, the fact that articles can be generated like the above, saving publishers time and money, does seem to be another pretty strong indicator of the slow and hard-to-watch decay of journalism. But I don’t think that the demand for a professional, reliable, and enjoyable source of important information is going to go away – not enough to eliminate the need for good news sources completely. I think that a story like the one above points to the fact that journalism is going to change, possibly drastically, to fill a slightly new niche in contemporary society.
One thing that might happen is the inflation of value in organic things – things clearly human, like more creative sentence structure, original metaphor, and distinct voice. I think there is a strong possibility of a reaction against cheaply written, algorithmic writing – whether computer-generated (as in the sports article quoted in the mediabistro article) or written by a sad and poorly paid writer (as in the 98% of sports articles that sound exactly like the computer generated one that are basically written by the thesaurus entries for “won” and “lost”. Not that such writing would cease to exist, but that it would fade into the background, especially amongst higher quality internet publications, the way low-quality websites do now: they contain information, but if we can tell nobody put any time into designing or laying out the website, nobody’s going to read it. I think that with the advent of more commonly computer-generated writing, readers are going to become more sensitive to what was written by a person and what is simply stark information.
As previously hard-to-get interviews and inside data (stuff stops being hard-to-get once it goes on the web) become more ubiquitous, the thing that is going to make a publication stand out in the market will be wit, voice, narrative skill, and opinion. IE, a good opinion article that you find yourself reading the whole way through will be distinctly more important to publishers and editors than an article that simply relays information that you can get from a variety of headlines.
News sources will also need to provide more background information that explains news stories. Again, the news about the latest events in Libya could be found throughout the internet, but the NYT offers topics pages on Libya (Wikipedia-esque), interactive maps of the conflicts as they unfold day-by-day, copious links to news analysis, and debates and predictions about what will happen next.
This, not cold journalism, is what is going to make or break internet news sources. Readers will be affected by how much they can interact with the information, how much they can learn in one place, and the level of trust they place in not the veracity of the information being relayed (that can be checked against any other news source instantaneously available to him/her) but the arrangement and explanation of that information.