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Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession

19 March 2013

Summary: Journalists often have been unsympathetic when reporting past waves of unemployment from automation. Now they have the opportunity to do first person reporting, as computers replace professionals. Like journalists.  This is another chapter in a series about the the robot revolution, soon to reshape our world.

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“The new reporter on the US media scene takes no coffee breaks, churns out articles at lightning speed, and has no pension plan.”
Wired, 24 April 2012

Just the beginning. From Pew’s 2012 State of the Media report

Coming soon to Fox News

Coming to Fox News

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Contents

  1. A new technology makes the news
  2. Realism about jobs
  3. Assessing the potential of robot journalists
  4. What should we do about it?
  5. For More Information about Robot Journalists
  6. For More Information about the Robot Revolution

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(1)  A new technology makes the news

Can the Computers at Narrative Science Replace Paid Writers?“, Joe Fassler, The Atlantic, 12 April 2012:

Now computers have proven competence — no, fluency — in yet another aspect of human life: writing. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, has developed an innovative platform that writes reported articles in eerily humanlike cadence. Their early work focused on niche markets, clients with repetitive storylines and loads of numeric data—sports stories, say, or financial reports. But the underlying logic that drives the process — scan a data set, detect significance, and tell a story based on facts — is powerful and vastly applicable. Wherever there is data, Narrative Science founders say, their software can generate a prose analysis that’s robust, reliable, and readable.

For example: One high-profile client, Forbes magazine, uses the platform to create what Forbes writer Lewis Dvorkin calls “computer-generated company earnings previews.” Each day, the platform sorts through recent stock data to profile a notably performing company. Another client is The Big Ten Network, which uses Narrative Science to create automatic sports recaps based on box scores and player data. … Similarly, the iPhone app Gamechanger, which coaches and parents use to score Little League games, has a “recap” service enabled by Narrative Science. Mark the final out and, kapow, you’ve got a print-ready article about the game.

Narrative Science now has 40 clients.

(2)  Realism about jobs (they’re going away)

One constant theme in articles about robot journalism: it will not replace journalists. As in this close to the Atlantic article quoted above, by Stuart Frankel (CEO of Narrative Science):

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From PepperDigital, 16 May 2012

From PepperDigital, 16 May 2012

Besides, the best journalism is always about people in the end — remarkable individuals and their ideas and ideals, our ongoing, ever-changing human experience. In this, Frankel agrees.

“If a story can be written by a machine from data, it’s going to be. It’s really just a matter of time at this point,” he said. “But there are so many stories to be told that are not data-driven. That’s what journalists should focus on, right?”

And we will, we’ll have to, because even our simplest moments are awash in data that machines will never quantify — the way it feels to take a breath, a step, the way the sun cuts through the trees. How, then, could any machine begin to understand the ways we love and hunger and hurt? The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.

Very pretty; quite unrealistic. Evgeny Morozov of Slate describes the real world:

It’s easy to see why Narrative Science’s clients find it useful. First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect. As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article — and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose.

Second, Narrative Science promises to be more comprehensive and objective than any human reporter. Few journalists have the time to find, process, and analyze millions of tweets, but Narrative Science can do so easily and, more importantly, instantaneously. It doesn’t just aim to report fancy statistics — it attempts to understand what those numbers mean and communicate this significance to the reader.

Would Narrative Science have unmasked the Watergate? Probably not. But then most news stories are easier to report and decipher.

The hopeful note at the end is bogus. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t “unmask Watergate”.  They got a telephone call from FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt.  But Morozov is almost certainly correct that most news providers want a large volume of copy to fill the space between advertisements. And they want the content cheaply. Computers will soon provide much of it.

The obvious analogy is with food. While people could dine on fine food — at home (at the cost of time) or at great restaurants ($$) — we frequently eat junk food, prepared at home or in some inexpensive restaurant. Fast and cheap trumps quality. Robot journalism will report the news, without poetry but less expensive than reporter-poets.  {Update} A recent Reuters story notes that “The ratio of public-relations workers to reporters grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008.” This will facilitate the automation of journalism. Already a large fraction of the news consists of re-written press releases; computers will do this easily and cheaply.

Most of the young people working as reporters today will need to find new jobs, faster than they expect. This transition will occur more quickly because so much of the news is loosely paraphrased from press releases — provided by government, corporations, universities, charities, advocacy groups, etc. Computers will do this fast and easily. Lots of jobs will go away.  Not just journalists, but those who hire, manage, and support them.

The 1% will prefer computers to troublesome journalists, continuing the taming of the news media. See these posts from Washington’s Blog.

(3) Assessing the potential of robot journalists

“In five years a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize …”
— Kristian Hammond, CTO and Co-Founder of Narrative Science, New York Times, 9 October 2011

“More than 90%.”
— What percentage of news will be written by computers in 15 years, per Kristian Hammond, Wired, 24 April 2012

This technology is “the next generation of content creation.”
— Scott Frederick, COO of Automated Insights (started 2007). AFP, July 2012

What might robot journalism evolve into? New technology is often defined in terms of what it replaces.  As in artificial writing, horseless carriage and iron horse, wireless telegraph, glass teletype. As these examples show, new technology often transcends what was done by opening new possibilities. Robot journalism might easily do the same.

“I used to put limitations on what we do, assuming our stories would be specific to data-rich industries. Now I think ultimately the sky is the limit.”
— Robbie Allen, CEO and founder of Automated Insights, Wired, 24 April 2012

But using Narrative Science to write baseball games is a little like hammering a nail with an atom bomb. The platform’s inference engine, Hammond says, is supported by “hardcore data analytics” — it can handle vast, truly complex information, data sets that would boggle any human mind. In this regard, the platform may one day serve as a kind of all-star assistant for human journalists.
— “The Atlantic, 12 April 2012

(4)  What should we do about it?

“In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
— John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

We cannot stop the march of technology. But we need not let it crush those in its path. Which is what we’ve done for centuries, with society enjoying the benefits (a few getting the greatest share) while a few pay the price.

Starting with the enclosure movement, the West’s rise accompanied the migration of farm laborers to new nightmarish lives in early industrial cities.  The 20th century saw the downward mobility of union workers as they went from well-paid manufacturing jobs to Walmart clerks.

Now  new wave begins. It will end well for humanity.  But this time we can mitigate the inevitable human suffering of the process.

(5)  For more information about robot journalism

Some companies in this area are Automated Insights, Journatic, and Narrative Science.

Articles:

  1. In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column, New York Times, 11 September 2011
  2. A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!, Evgeny Morozov, Slate, 19 March 2012 — “How automated journalism and loss of reading privacy may hurt civil discourse”
  3. Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?, Wired, 24 April 2012
  4. New reporter? Call him Al, for algorithm, AFP, July 2012
  5. Pew Research Center’s 2013 State of the Media

(6)  For More Information about the Robot Revolution

  1. The coming big increase in structural unemployment,
    7 August 2010
  2. The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
  3. The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee, 22 September 2010
  4. Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, 23 September 2012
  5. The Robot Revolution arrives & the world changes, Apr 2012
  6. The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?, 27 November 2012
  7. In Friday’s job report you’ll see early signs of the robot revolution!, 5 December 2012
  8. Krugman discovers the Robot Revolution!, 9 December 2012
  9. How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?, 11 December 2012
  10. 2012: the year people began to realize the robots are coming, 3 January 2013

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From The Atlantic, 25 April 2012. By Paul Fleet, Shutterstoc

From The Atlantic, 25 April 2012. By Paul Fleet, Shutterstoc

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