This AI text generator can replace human writers. The semi-coherent ones, at least.

November 12, 2019
Category: Tech & Tools

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Tuesday? Sign up here.

ROBO-TEXT

The folks concerned with online misinformation (still a shockingly small group) had a bit of a freakout earlier this year when a tech company announced it had built an artificial intelligence tool that could generate text. Like, really good text. Text that credibly seemed like it was written by humans.

If you’re unfamiliar with that technology, it could be the next step in automated, “crowdsourced” journalism, in which the machine generates texts that are so convincing that you don’t even notice a human editor. (If you do notice a human editor, that’s no big deal; it’s an editorial judgment you need to have made on your own.) And, of course, it might be the beginning of the end for human writers altogether. That’s bad enough. But it gets worse. And it’s coming to a town near you.

Did that last paragraph seem credible? I dropped the first paragraph of this section into the online version of the text generator and the AI slapped it together in a few seconds. It’s not what I would have written at all (for starters, I don’t think AI will ever replace human writers for plenty of reasons), but it’s a bit weird to experience.

In the short term, I’m sure the online content mills will use it to create a million SEO-focused articles. In the long term, who knows?

GET SOCIAL 

“I believe giving more control to users will help create a healthier Twitter and reduce abuse,” tweeted Dantley Davis, Twitter’s vice president for design and research, as he announced some of Twitter’s plans for 2020. Planned features include the ability to remove yourself from a conversation, disallow retweets on a tweet, turn on and off whether you can be mentioned, and the option to limit a tweet to specific hashtags, interests or friends.

In that vein, you can also now follow specific topics on Twitter. If you happen to have a personal interest fall into one of 300 prescribed subjects, you can now follow that subject, with related tweets appearing in your timeline, even if you don’t follow the specific people tweeting about it. It’s kind of like following hashtags on Instagram (which I totally didn’t know was a thing until a few months ago).

Speaking of Instagram, the controversial hiding of the likes is rolling out in the United States this week. Do I like this? You’ll never know. (Just kidding. I think it’s a great move toward breaking what seems to be an addiction for many users, akin to the banning of cigarette ads in the 1970s.)

STOP, COLLABORATE AND LISTEN

One of the most constructive recent trends in journalism was cribbed straight from a schoolyard lesson — that working together is better than going it alone. News organizations across the world are reaching out and collaborating to tell big stories. But like most things, that’s easier said than done.

So ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that’s no stranger to collaborations (an understatement, if I’ve ever said one), built a tool to make working on data projects across newsrooms much easier.

It’s called — what else? — Collaborate, and it comes with a thorough set of instructions that puts IKEA to shame.

NEWSLETTER BETTER

Dan Oshinsky runs the email consultancy Inbox Collective and writes Not a Newsletter, a monthly guide to sending better emails. Quick tips from Dan:

Here are two simple practices that might improve your open rates.

  1. A/B test a few versions of your “sent from” name to see which readers respond best to. For instance, for the newsletter you’re reading right now, “Ren LaForme,” “Ren LaForme | Poynter,” “Try This!,” or even “Poynter Try This!” might be the most effective sent-from name. Test them all and see which one readers are most likely to open.
  2. Pick a friendly email address to send your newsletter from. If you’re using a “noreply@” email address (like “noreply@poynter.org”), you’ll want to switch to something a bit different — some inboxes are more likely to filter noreply@ emails to the spam folder. Choose something instead that’s a bit more welcoming, like hello@, newsletter@, or yourname@. (Just insert your name into that spot!)

40 BETTER HOURS

It’s been another miserable year for journalism layoffs. From health and wellness to fellowships and grants, professional resources to opportunities for development, the Save Journalism Project has a solid collection of resources for anyone seeking a new job or freelance work or a new career altogether.

FOR YOUR TOOLBOX

Need to make sure that air conditioning noise isn’t too loud before you start recording? Or maybe you’re confident you’re witnessing a historically loud protest? There are plenty of reasons you’d need to use a noise meter. Why not keep one in your pocket at all times? Decibel X is available on all devices and has more features than you’ll know what to do with. You hear?

A few weeks ago, I shared a roundup of all of my favorite tools for travel. I recommended using Google Maps’ download feature, but Lera Gavrusheva reached out about Maps.Me, another stellar tool for downloadable, offline maps.

MAKE IT STICK

I share tools all the time. You read about them all the time. Then what happens? Sometimes you start using them and they become part of your daily life. Most often, for a lot of reasons, that doesn’t happen.

The folks behind CrowdTangle (a tool you really should try!) put together a program over the summer to try to figure out how to get tools to stick.

The team shared a few lessons learned after spending 12 weeks with 15 newsrooms. You have to listen to your coworkers’ problems and ideas to get them to try new things. Long-term success comes from being aware of what it’s going to take for a new tool to find success. Give people public rewards for trying new things. And don’t forget to take advantage of all of the great resources out there.

WOW-WORTHY

Here are a few stories that made me gasp over the past week.

The New York Times analyzed all of President Trump’s tweets and, uhh, there are some interesting takeaways.

A team at the University of Illinois developed the first high-resolution map of the U.S. food supply chain. Consider this the next time you nibble on some corn or chow down on Alaskan salmon.

Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle has a story about the last bottom trawler fisherman in Monterey. Or is it a story about lost treasure? Or the 2008 financial crash? Or the health of the oceans? Human greed? Whatever it’s actually about, it’s phenomenal.

Ren LaForme is Poynter’s digital tools reporter. He can be reached at ren@poynter.org or on Twitter at @itsren.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.