Sci-Tech

'Robot' news reporter tells a grim story

Emily Bell

The ramifications of algorithms turning data into words rings warning bells for the news industry, writes Emily Bell.

The New York Times' poor first-quarter earnings were reported by a robot called Narrative Science. (Mark Lennihan, AP)

Visit the website
Forbes.com
and read the earnings forecasts for the New York Times, and you will notice the byline “By Narrative Science”. Normally you would have to open a copy of the design magazine Wallpaper* to find someone with such a florid moniker. Except, of course, Narrative Science is not a person but a “robot” journalist – actually a set of algorithms which take data and turn them into words.

What started as an experimental laboratory at Northwestern University in the United States, with journalists and technologists working together, is now a fully-fledged business that turns data into stories of a type that will not be winning many Pulitzers, but which certainly pass the Turing test of making one unsure whether they were written by a person or machine.

The lovable “stats monkey”, which came from the same series of research experiments, does the same for sports stories without the attendant vet bills, bananas and spelling errors associated with employing a real monkey.

Although this algorithmic approach to compiling stories is by no means new – the lab that spawned Narrative Science was conducting and publishing work a number of years ago – the ultimate ramifications of what the approach symbolises seem to be taking a long time to sink into most news-gathering organisations.

The irony of the rather poor first-quarter earnings of the New York Times being reported into the Forbes database by a series of algorithms should not be lost on anyone, not least the New York Times itself.

Coming apocalypse
Along with other large newspaper brands in the United States, such as the Washington Post and USA Today, there is growing unease at the paper about what one senior news executive described as a “coming apocalypse” for the industry in general and mid-sized news brands in particular.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse has already dropped off its bags, if not actually arrived. Newspaper closures and bankruptcies have swept across the US in the past five years, and the advertising market in print has continued to decline faster than digital revenues are increasing (according to a recent Pew Research Centre survey at a rate of $1 up in digital for every $7 down in print).

What now seems clear to everyone who is engaged in the apocalyptic welcome committee is that survival of the “what’s next” takes a greatly increased magnitude of change from what we have seen so far.

At a recent meeting of senior news executives, one commented that he saw colleagues in other companies “coming into work every day and cutting a tenth of an inch off their own body and really not doing very much about it”.

In recovery
The statement itself was not that surprising, but the more widespread agreement in the room was. After 13 consecutive quarters of growth, the US economy is technically, if not visibly, in recovery and on a normal business cycle that puts us halfway through the “good times”. What happens come the next recession?

Forbes recently pointed to a presentation by Ironfire Capital on why the New York Times might not last beyond 2015. Mischievous investor-speak on one level, the presentation contained a few home truths about a plateau in cost-cutting and a failure to revive revenues.

The message is that the disruption in the next round will outstrip anything seen to date.

The New York Times is searching for a chief executive, possibly from the tech industry, and it is also possible that many others will soon be in a similar state of remaking their businesses from top to bottom. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

 

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