They are not going away. After a flurry of attention last year, we hadn’t heard too much in the interim about the robots that were going to displace humans as content creators. Then last month, Steve Lohr of the New York Times revived the issue. Although the natural reaction of writers and editors might be fear, I think that’s the wrong reaction. The robots aren’t going to replace us, they’re going to free us.
Both Lohr’s article and a more recent series by Farhad Manjoo in Slate, “Will Robots Steal Your Job,” examine the efforts of IT startups to develop software that performs skilled, creative work such as writing. Two of those companies, Narrative Science and Automated Insights, are developing programs that churn through computerized data about sports and other topics and spit out news stories. Though I suspect it’s partly for entertainingly hyperbolic effect, Manjoo claims to be “terrified” that his livelihood as a writer is in peril.
In her reflections on the topic yesterday, and despite an opening feint at the “scary” job-threatening Internet, freelance writer Tam Harbert took a more optimistic approach than Manjoo. She’s skeptical of claims that software can win Pulitzers or successfully mimic the human element in journalism. Moreover, she sees some benefit in using software to replace those deadwood journalists who “don’t add any value” through their work:
“Writers, for example, who simply gather information, get a few comments from people and then regurgitate it onto the page, should probably start looking for another profession. As James W. Michaels, former editor of Forbes, was known to bellow: That is ‘not reporting, it’s stenography!’”
Though Harbert might not go this far, I’d put it this way: Computer-generated journalism is not terrifying, it’s liberating.
This is especially true in the world of trade journalism, where much of the work entry-level journalists are asked to do could be handled just as well by an algorithm. It doesn’t take very long for rewriting new-product press releases to evolve from informative introduction to an industry to stultifying drudgery. The fact that trade publisher Hanley Wood is one of the companies working with Narrative Science is, to me at least, encouraging.
The way forward for journalists is not commodity content but uniquely personal content. You can already see this direction developing in the field. Though it wasn’t her intent, Stefanie Botelho stated as much last month in a Folio: article on “The New ‘I’ in Journalism.”
Botelho’s aim was to critique journalists who let their subjects be overshadowed by their own self-regard. But “ego preening,” as she put it, is a problem in all walks of life, not just journalism. That doesn’t mean journalism shouldn’t be conversational or personal. Why would we want to avoid the one thing that computers can’t convincingly do? That’s one reason, I’d guess, that Manjoo’s articles about robot job thieves are written so relentlessly in the first-person, and rely so extensively on himself and his family for his examples.
As Harbert argues, what gives the journalist’s work true value is the human, personal perspective. Without the I, there’s no you. Without the I, there’s no conversation, no meaningful interaction. Without the I, journalism is just an exchange of data.