Are Sportswriters Really Necessary?

Business Week:

Are Sportswriters Really Necessary?

Narrative Science’s software takes sports stats and spits out articles

• It’s “less expensive” than beat reporters, says a customer
Below are the opening lines of three stories written about a recent college baseball game. Two are from schools’ sports information departments. The other was produced by software that takes box scores and spits out news articles. Which one was done by machine?

a) “The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.”
b) “Michigan held off Iowa for a 7-5 win on Saturday. The Hawkeyes (16-21) were unable to overcome a four-run sixth inning deficit. The Hawkeyes clawed back in the eighth inning, putting up one run.”
c) “The Iowa baseball team dropped the finale of a three-game series, 7-5, to Michigan Saturday afternoon. Despite the loss, Iowa won the series having picked up two wins in the twinbill at Ray Fisher Stadium Friday.”

The correct answer: b). It was composed by the computers of Narrative Science, a five-month-old company in Evanston, Ill., that specializes in “machine-generated content.” “There’s no human author and no human editing,” says Stuart Frankel, 44, the company’s CEO and a former executive at DoubleClick. “But the stories sound really good.” Narrative Science licenses the software from Northwestern University, where a team of computer science and journalism professors developed the

technology. (The professors’ name for the project: “Stats Monkey.”)

Frankel says his company has three customers. One is the Big Ten Network, a joint venture between the collegiate athletic conference and Fox Cable, which began using the service for baseball and softball coverage on its Web site this spring. “It’s considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games,” says Michael Calderon, Big Ten’s director of new media. “In fact, it would be logistically impossible for us to do that.” After a game, scorekeepers e-mail game data to Narrative Science, which feeds it into a computer. A story can appear online in minutes.

How. Cool. Is. That?
I give it ten years before they have cyber “sportscasters” hooked into the cameras that can call the plays and offer meaningless commentary.

And they will still make more sense than John Madden…

Doesn’t surprise me. A few years ago I read an article (online, of course) about a chain of newspapers in California that was going to outsource some of its reporting to India. They would hire people in India to watch city council and school board meetings live streaming on the internet and then write stories about them.

As a former reporter myself I know how tedious some of these meetings can be, but there’s more to covering any topic, be it sports, politics, lifestyles, etc. than just regurgitating a few quotes and facts.

Mark my words, the next step will be automatic computerized story coverage of elections and politics… just plug in the vote results, etc. and voila.

The domain of sports, beyond grade school and middle school, has evolved into a negative influence.

I often refer to professional sports as the “opiate for the masses of men.”

It drains time and money out of families that should be using this time and these resources to raise kids with faith.

Give the software another generation or two and it would be perfect for reporting on Congress, state legislatures, local school or zoning boards, &c, &c. – the last especially are playgrounds for political/fiscal mischief. A program could do a quick check of participants’ public records:

Mr Juan Ferrer was certified as a minority contractor and awarded a no-bid contract for cleaning services at Smallville Middle School. The name on Mr Ferre’s birth certificate is John Smith and he has no experience in the janitorial industry prior to incorporating KleenSweep Svcs two weeks ago.

Plus, the program might be less inclined to make up stuff or give its own slant, although I suppose that defect could be overcome with better programming.

Of course what does this mean for all those journalist that will be out of a job? :frowning:

It won’t happen. A computer program can’t describe a diving catch in the fifth inning of a baseball game, report that the crowd booed loudly at a holding call, or that a shot from Sidney Crosby knuckled past the outstretched glove of the goalie, let alone replace the columns of a Bill Simmons or a Rick Reilly, or write the human interest stories of sports.

Even in the list given at the top, which is where the computer would be the strongest, (a) clearly flows better than (b), and is a much better “hook” for the story. © is only indistinguishable because its written so very poorly. And how is the computer going to collect quotes?

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