On Android Sports Writers, Respect for Andy Rooney and One Unnatural Circulation Spike

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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If you're anything like me, you're disappointed about the nature of the role robots are playing in our world. First of all, there is definitely no robot cleaning my apartment or fetching me drinks, as was promised by cultural texts as diverse as "The Jetsons" and The Sharper Image catalog. Nor is there a friendly bot to toss me a lightsaber at just the right moment. Now it turns out that instead of making life easier or better, robots may be working to put me out of work.

As part of a strong series examining whether robots will steal a variety of our jobs, Slate's Farhad Manjoo asked whether the position of "writer" is endangered by advanced technology of the sort employed by Automated Insights, publisher of websites such as FriscoFan.com, which contains recaps of San Francisco Giants games that were written by a computer.

While Mr. Manjoo holds out some hope for human-generated creativity and the sort of serendipity that no computer can achieve, his conclusion is largely bleak -- if you're a human (and, dear God, I hope you are):

Automated Insights generates stories just as a human hack would. It starts by looking at the stats. Then, it comes up with the perfect tone -- if a hometown favorite was defeated, the "writer" will sound crestfallen. Next, the machine consults a huge database of phrases in search of words that match the story told by the numbers. If one team beats another soundly, you get something like this headline: "Giants Batter Rockies."

Automated Insight's stories are far from original, but they are also not obviously robotic. (I've read a lot of text written by humans that 's not nearly so coherent.) And what the machines lack in originality, they make up for in price and speed. Robbie Allen, the founder and CEO of Automated Insights, hires a handful [of ] writers who spend their days coming up with phrases like "top-notch outing" to add to the library. Through automation, he can turn their efforts into an amazing number of articles. "Last year during college basketball season, we generated 64,000 stories," Allen says. "I did a calculation and it would have taken 100 writers writing four stories a day to get similar results."

It's not just that Automated Insights has managed to replace human writers -- it's managed to surpass them.

That said, it's hard to imagine a robot producing anything like "Minimum Viable Personality," a post on Fred Wilson's AVC blog penned by something called Giant Robot Dinosaur. Charmingly illustrated, the all-caps post is intended for startup making products and services, but the advice applies to media companies as well. Here's a snippet:


There will NOT be a facile dinosaur-related segue into this great post about Andy Rooney, courtesy of Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon. Mr. Zoller Seitz cuts across the grain of conventional wisdom about Mr. Rooney, thick as the gentleman's eyebrows, holding that the retiring "60 Minutes" commentator is too curmudgeonly for anyone's good. Mr. Zoller Seitz argues that Mr. Rooney, a damn fine writer, demands our respect:

More than anything else, Rooney is a writer, and a good one. He didn't become a pop culture icon because of his good looks or charming personality. He did it by expressing himself clearly and concisely, in language that connected with readers and viewers. He writes in the spare, mostly adjective-free style that was fashionable in the post-Hemingway era, and that you had to master if you wanted a job in newspapers. It's a style that 's rarely seen today except in crime novels and certain big-city tabloids.

A New York Times story pointed me to this column in The Suffolk Times, a weekly newspaper on Long Island that had observed something truly weird: its sales had gone way up. Turns out someone had been driving all over the area, buying out all the copies of The Times and the Riverhead Times-Review and explaining the strange purchases with a variety of tales. In an arch column, Troy Gustavson speculates that the spike has something to do with the subject of an unflattering story, a doctor accused of Medicare fraud, who doesn't want the story out there:

I've been in this business for 50 years and never have I experienced what we experienced this past week: a run on the newsstands by someone involved in a truly monumental school project; someone really proud of their grandchild on the honor roll; someone with a great deal of precious glassware to pack; or, as I suspect, someone intent on suppressing the dissemination of a particular news story.

Finally, we end with an interesting experiment going on across the pond. Guardian columnist George Monbiot believes in total transparency when it comes to how journalists are paid -- not just who's paying them, but how much. So he's gone and revealed all his personal-worth information on his blog, including his Guardian pay ($96, 887), a book advance, and some savings info:

I have two investments: A savings account with Smile, which currently contains [$20,000.]
A savings account with Alliance and Leicester (now Santander), which currently contains[$1,875].
Until recently I had more savings, but I spent them eco-fitting my house. In view of what has now happened to the market, that might not have been the wisest of investments.
I have no shareholdings or investment in any other company. Apart from the house in which I live, I have no other properties.
I will post up any other payments, gifts, hospitality and investments during the first week of every month.

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