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Robot journalism

Quick, get a byline for R2-D2 February 11, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

YES, we are quite familiar with new technology, thank you. Some of us might pine for the years of typewriters and paste-up, but this newspaper wouldn’t be in your hands today, or on your devices, without a big assist from computers. No more hot type for us! And no need for dot matrix photos and dark rooms. We are riding the tide of 2019 technology, even if some of us have to be dragged along by the ear.

The New York Almighty Times did a piece the other day on the “rise of robot reporters.” It didn’t sit well for this outfit’s inky wretches. For we’ve seen the results of this kinda thing. It ain’t pretty. (Would a robot use the word “ain’t”?)

One particular sports website that we visit during fantasy football season is a great example. That is to say, an awful one. It doesn’t take a practiced hand or trained eye to see how its “reports” are spit out, and we mean spit:

(Fill in the blank) quarterback for (fill in the blank) team threw for (fill in the blank) yards this past Sunday, pushing (fill in the blank) past its division rival (fill in the blank) by a score of 67-42. Next up for (fill in the blank), (fill in the blank) featuring (fill in the blank).

Ugh. Such “reports” have all the heart of a toaster oven.

Those who push this new technology as something good, instead of something to beware, say it’s all part of change, and these reports should be considered “tools” by carbon-based journalists.

Take this, from Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post:

“When you start to talk about mass media, with national or international reach, you run the risk of losing the interest of readers who are interested in stories on their smaller communities,” Mr. Gilbert told the papers. “So we asked, ‘How can we scale our expertise?’”

Scale our expertise? Spoken like a director of strategic initiatives. Or a robot. Somebody get us an editor who can translate.

Better yet, somebody sic an editor from, say, 1988 on this guy and the whole idea of robot journalism. We imagine said editor—complete with a half-eaten cigar in his mouth—might have a choice word for the man. Or two choice words. The editors who trained us would fill the air with a tapestry of oaths had anybody suggested robots in their newsrooms. Or weak coffee.

Besides, robot journalism doesn’t seem to save much time in many cases. Apparently flesh-and-blood journalists have to write several copies of a story for the computer to use, depending on what the numbers say when they finally arrive. A robot can tell the difference between a 0 and a 1, but it can’t write the template itself.

From The Times report: “A.I. journalism is not as simple as a shiny robot banging out copy. A lot of work goes into the front end, with editors and writers meticulously crafting several versions of a story, complete with text for different outcomes. Once the data is in—for a weather event, a baseball game or an earnings report—the system can create an article.”

Create an article? This sounds suspiciously like writing two ledes for a late football game, and going with the right one at deadline. Why do we need robots for that?

Sure, computers are useful things for Homo faber, the animal that uses tools. But a computer isn’t going to describe a baseball flying into an Easter-egg blue sky to the cheers of tens and tens of people as a minor league team celebrates a walk-off homer that ended a 20-game streak of almost winning.

And it’s not going to interview the mother of this year’s runner-up at the state spelling bee who was knocked out by “stichomythia.” And fill-in-the-blank stories might work for FLASHES from the bond market, but you’re not likely to buy a newspaper for that. Surely you don’t want your news, feature and opinion articles to sound like The Weather Channel’s warning about storms coming to PARTS OF pulaski county, PARTS OF saline county, NORTHERN grant county. Towns in the storms path INCLUDE . . . .

MANKIND—journalists should be included—will use tools. But he will resist being used by them.

Give us this neat computer with the ability to erase errors with a button. It beats correction fluid and ribbon. But save the canned stories for fantasy football, where they can’t do much harm.

Somebody did note that the computer’s stories had a lot fewer typos in its copy. We hope he was kidding. Besides, a typo is well now and again. It shows we’re humman.

At least for now, Gentle Reader. As long as we can hold back the future.

Wish us luck.


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