May 4, 2010

Mainstream journalism has been in a freefall for the last few years, with newsroom staff cuts of 40 percent or more at many newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations. Now comes another threat to journalism jobs.

Just read the following news item from the Big Ten Network’s website:

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana cross country and track and field standout Jessica Gall was selected as one of 30 finalists for the 17th annual Woman of the Year award, announced by the NCAA on Aug. 28. Gall, who just completed her master’s degree in journalism, wrapped up her career at Indiana with a Big Ten individual title and a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the 10,000-meter run.

What you just read was produced by automated software from a company called Narrative Science. Based in Evanston, Ill., the company creates “machine-generated content” requiring no human authors and no human editing.

The software, developed at Northwestern University, is designed to work with any data-intensive subject matter, including crime stats, medical study results, surveys or financial announcements. 

Various protoypes of similar software programs have been floating around the news business for the last decade, but none has caught on widely. This one seems solid, and already has a major client in the Big Ten Network.

A service like this could be a boon to readers, bringing them information they might never have gotten otherwise — or at least, wouldn’t have gotten in an easily digestible narrative form. It’s easy to see how websites, in particular, could automate themselves to churn out an endless stream of quickly written stories based on a river of raw data inputs.

But it’s also one more threat to the careers of already beleaguered journalists. One could make the argument that robotizing the creation of routine news stories will free up experienced journalists to do more ambitious, value-added coverage that couldn’t possibly be automated.

And I agree, that would be a fine outcome. But given the recent history of corporate journalism, it’s much more likely that automation will lead to cost savings in the form of job cuts, returning more cash to the shareholders in publicly traded media companies.

And I can’t help but note the irony that this project is coming from Northwestern, longtime home to one of the nation’s top undergraduate and graduate journalism programs.