Journalists debate value of robots

Wired | The Atlantic Wire | GigaOm
Brian Timpone took offense Wednesday at the suggestion that his company Journatic is a content farm. Journatic has, he wrote on a Google+ discussion, “been producing news for media companies for several years. We produce whole newspaper sections for some of them.”

How exactly Journatic operates is of great interest to many now that the Chicago Tribune has tapped the company to run TribLocal, its hyperlocal network in the Chicagoland area. Writing in the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner said Journatic paid writers $2-4 per article (he linked to an ad on JournalismJobs.com that is no longer listed) and talked about Timpone’s history with Blockshopper, a previous startup that turned scraped data about real estate transactions into stories.

That process, of stories partly or completely assembled by algorithm, has become a hot topic in journalism since Steven Levy’s story published Tuesday about Narrative Science, a Chicago company that uses algorithms to turn sports and financial data into stories for clients as prosaic as parents looking for documentation of their kids’ Little League teams and as serious as Forbes.

Forbes Media chief products officer Lewis Dvorkin says he’s impressed but not surprised that, in almost every case, his cyber-stringers nail the essence of the company they’re reporting on. Major screwups are not unheard-of with flesh-and-blood scribes, but Dvorkin hasn’t heard any complaints about the automated reports. “Not a one,” he says. (The pieces on Forbes.com include an explanation that “Narrative Science, through its proprietary artificial intelligence platform, transforms data into stories and insights.”)

I read one of Narrative Sciences’ stories Monday while preparing to write about the New York Times Company’s first-quarter earnings. Rebecca Greenfield uses that piece, a preview of the company’s earnings report, as an example of a Narrative Sciences product that’s “useful information for harried bloggers to grab and create something useful out of, yes.” (Guilty, I hope!)

But, also boring. There’s “context,” in the way that [Narrative Science CTO Kristian] Hammond defines it: The machine knows The Times is a company. But no real context, or analysis, or prose, unlike this post human Joe Pompeo wrote over at Capital New York, where he explains what the numbers really mean, putting them in the context of the company’s CEO search, or our own Alexander Abad-Santos, who judged the advertising revenue decline to be the most important part of report.

Not a problem, Narrative Science told Levy: “It’s no more difficult to write an irreverent story than it is to write a straightforward, AP-style story,” Narrative Science’s Larry Adams told Levy. “We could cover the stock market in the style of Mike Royko.” Hammond floats the possibility to Levy that computers will collaborate with journalists on stories.

In the piece that Timpone responded to, Mathew Ingram writes that such a future depends on whether “the journalists who are ‘freed up’ because of Narrative Science or Journatic can actually find somewhere else that will pay them to do the really valuable work that machines can’t do. If they can’t, then they will simply be unemployed journalists.”

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