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The Write Stuff

Back in our newspaper days we watched the typesetters, inserters, many of the pressmen, and even much of the clerical staff gradually fade away from the industry, all victims of the relentless progress of automation. We were especially saddened to see the departure of the typesetters, whose painstakingly learned sleight of hand was as entertaining to watch as any of those plate-spinners who used to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, but we always reassured ourselves that a flesh-and-ink-stained-blood human being would always be required to write the stories.
Now we learn that even the all-too-human art of writing news stories can be mastered by mere machines. The Los Angeles Times has already run a story written by what is ominously called a “writer-bot,” and according to the chief technical officer of a company called Narrative Science, another ominous coinage, as much of 90 percent of all news stories will be computer-generated rather than human-written by 2030. This is after our hoped-for retirement date, but the apparent advent of the automated reporter is still a sobering enough development to make us reconsider our career path.
It seems a shame to leave so many decades of journalistic experience unused, however, so we’re thinking of getting on this computer-generated news racket. The classical economists’ answer to automation has always been that it creates a new job for every one it destroys, as people as required to design and build and maintain the machines doing the work, so we’ll simply get involved in the program-writing end of the biz. How hard can it be, after all? There’s something to do with algorithms, we’re told, and so far as we can tell that has nothing to do with Al Gore, but we’ll just get some unemployed computer geek to take care of that gobbledygook while we provide the necessary instructions. Many decades of being reprimanded by mainstream news editors have taught us all the rules of modern journalism, and it should be a relatively simple task to get a machine to obey them.
At the risk of revealing proprietary information, we’ll share with any potential investors out there a few of the stylebook entries we’ll have programmed into our machines. By following these few simple rules our computer-written copy should meet all the requirements of modern journalism.
First of all, any political story with the word “scandal” should omit any mention of the subject’s party affiliation unless he is a Republican. Any economics story bearing bad news should include the word “unexpectedly,” unless a Republican occupies the White House, in which case the words “dire” and “cataclysmic” will be added. All reports of Islamist-inspired terrorism must include a reference to the “religion of peace,” as well as some vague allusion to Israeli intransigence. Stories regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative activist groups will not be written at all, but immediately replaced with the salacious details of the Kardashian clan’s most recent sexual exploits. Partial-birth abortions will described as “what opponents call partial-birth abortions,” at least until proponents can decide what to call it. All stories making reference to the Koch brothers must include the phrase “billionaire businessman, while those mentioning George Soros should use “philanthropist” and “social activist.” Crime stories must omit any mention of race or sex, unless the suspect is white and male, and just to be safe the neighborhood in which the crime occurred should also go unmentioned. Any mention of President Barack Obama should be free of any unflattering adjectives, and any accompanying photographs should be altered to include a suitably hagiographic halo effect.
There are lots more rules, as we have learned through hard experience, but that just means plenty of lucrative work for the aspiring journalistic programmer. The rules keep changing, too, depending on who’s in office, so this scam might yet get us over until the hoped-for retirement date.

— Bud Norman

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