It’s the Pandora of Journalism

Posted on April 27, 2012


It’s entirely possible this blog post was written for me by a computer. It wasn’t, but it is entirely possible.

In his NTS Daily newsletter Al Peterson pointed out a recent Wired magazine article profiling a company called Narrative Science that is teaching computers to write news stories. Using algorithms, the system is able to churn out articles with frightening speed and accuracy.

According to Wired, these pieces are already running on the websites of some big name publishers including Forbes. The service is also being embraced for niche news such as a fast-food chain that uses the computer writers to churn out monthly reports analyzing sales data, comparing  it to their competitors and suggesting which menu items to focus on.

The key to the system is data; there has to be information available online to analyze. For example, one company uses the software to run a newswire that reports on corporate earnings; a fairly straightforward topic. The system can digest facts from corporate releases, stock prices, competitors news and other sources to create a comprehensive news story written in the style of a traditional, straight-laced financial reporter.

It’s the Pandora of journalism.

Pandora and other streaming music services gather data like the relationships between music styles, listener preferences and other facts in an attempt to build a music channel catering to an individual’s tastes.

But, as Mark Allen Miller, who wrote the article for Wired, points out, the facts can only take you so far.

Miller says if a computer had written his article, “It probably would not mention that the company’s Chicago headquarters lie only a long baseball toss from the Tribune newspaper building. Nor would it dwell on the fact that this potentially job-killing technology was incubated in part at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those ironies are obvious to a human. But not to a computer.”

And while someday they may be able to train computers to look outside of the data to find irony, until then good reporters who can put a story in context — much like good airtalent who can put music and information in context for listeners in an entertaining way — are safe from being replaced.