Worried That Journalist Robots Will Replace You? Say “I”

Angry Writing Robot by Brittstift/Flickr

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.

Arianna Owes Me (and Maybe You) Big Bucks

Time to pay up

I’ve never written for the Huffington Post, but I’ve given them something worth much more than words: my attention. So I think it’s only fair that Arianna hand over a reasonable chunk of the $315 million that AOL paid for her site.

Sure, Jonathan Tasini and all those other cry babies who are suing her wrote a lot of great content for HuffPo. But what’s content worth in dollars and cents without readers? Not much.  (Exhibit number one: the awesome blog you’re reading right now.)

Everybody knows it’s audience that bestows value. It’s an attention economy, not a content economy. As Jeff Jarvis puts it, ‘’Content is becoming a cost burden, what you have to have to get the links, but in and of itself, content can’t draw value without an audience, without links.”

And as Clay Shirky says, our precious attention is in high demand.  I figure mine is worth at least $50 an hour, but has Arianna paid me a single penny? Not on your life.  And that’s not counting my finder’s fee for all those HuffPo links I’ve shared.

When you add up all of us who’ve read HuffPo at some point, you have to figure it amounts to a lot more than $315 million. But we’ll settle for $105 million.

We’ve been modern-day attention slaves on Arianna’s content plantation long enough. So go screw yourselves, Tasini et al. This is our money.

The Yin and Yang of Content Economics

Tweet from Bob ScheierIt has the look of two trends hurtling toward a head-on collision. Content is getting ever cheaper, but to be effective, content has to get ever better. Sooner or later, one of these trends is bound to falter–but which will it be?

That was the implicit question in a plaintive tweet last week from Bob Scheier: After a look at HubSpot’s Writers Network, he asked: “Why are rates so low ($50/blog post)? Was hoping to eat in 2011.”

The skeptical might reply that HubSpot’s network is too new to be representative, that the writers set their own rates (some much higher than $50), and that those with established clients probably earn much more.  But the overall effect of such outlets, in which writers bid against one another, is undeniably to lower writing fees.

We may not like it, but behind this trend is the force of economic law. In a time when everyone is becoming a journalist, Neil Thackray says, “that must mean there is an oversupply of content. And that means the price falls.  Try writing for Demand Media and you will quickly learn the harsh economics of content oversupply.”

On its face, this trend would appear to be great news for marketers. As Josh Gordon pointed out last week, one of the primary attractions of social media is its low cost. Cheap content fits right into that equation. The only problem is this: Cheap content is crappy content.

Gordon puts it this way: “As anyone reading this blog should know by now, good content is not cheap and a social media program is only as good as its content.” As he points out, though, many marketers, at least for now, “see this differently.” It’s no wonder, he says, that they also think social media is one of their least effective marketing tools.

Fortunately, every yin has its yang. While an abundance of content creators leads to oversupply, the scarcity of attention among overwhelmed audiences increases the value of good content. As Paul Conley has argued, the result is an “excellence craze”:

“In B2B, where I make my living, it seems like every company in every tiny niche of every industry has become a content creator. There are a thousand voices competing for very small audiences. . . . The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic.”

This is alien thinking for traditional B2B content producers, notes Conley: “Both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three or four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great.”  But in a market oversaturated with content, spending money for content that stands out from the rest is not just sane, but essential to success.

At the moment, low-cost commodity content is attracting all the attention. But its very prevalence  should ensure that well-written and thoughtful content with a unique point of view will be valued at its true worth.

Advice to the Re-Employed: Think Freelance

Imagine for a moment (and this may not be a stretch for many readers) that you’ve been self-employed for a year or so after a layoff put you out on the streets. You’ve put a decent freelance or consulting career together, gotten hip to the value of personal branding, and learned or relearned the enormous value of autonomy in your work life.

Now, though, you’ve had a tempting job offer you’d be crazy not to take, so you do.

Do you stop thinking like a freelancer and start acting like an employee? Twenty years ago, your answer probably would have been yes. Certainly that would have been your new employer’s expectation.

Today, though, there’s a good chance you would take your free-agent mentality into your new job, and with your new boss’s blessing.

Two blog posts today brought this to mind, one from the employee’s point of view, the other from management’s.

Seth Godin’s challenge to the employed is not to realize that you work for yourself—which you should know by now—but to start acting like it. As he reminds us, “the idea that you are a faceless cog in a benevolent system that cares about you and can’t tell particularly whether you are worth a day’s pay or not, is, like it or not, over.”

And Dan Pink, in a fantastic animated presentation highlighted today by Adam Tinworth, tells management that what motivates employees isn’t money, but three key personal factors: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. As he shows, the self-directed employee is the most productive and creative.

So if you find yourself in this scenario, think of your new job as an extended self-employment gig. In both good ways and bad, that may be exactly what your new employer is expecting.

Damnation and Creation: Is Demand Media Devaluing Content?

Demand Media is evil. Or so Folio: magazine general manager Tony Silber implied yesterday in a blog post entitled “Demand Media Can Go to Hell.”

Silber’s beef with the so-called content farm is like that of many others from traditional publishing:  to pay freelance writers a paltry 3 cents a word, on average, is to  “demean and abuse professional content creators.”

Word that the company is looking to partner with magazine publishers was apparently enough to push Silber over the edge:

Tony Silber

Tony Silber: Damned Media

“I hope no magazine ever partners with Demand Media. In fact, I hope Demand Media and any site like it goes out of business. They demean and abuse professional content creators, leveraging them to generate revenue from Google ads.

They’re sweatshops. No magazine should accept content from a company that treats content with such disrespect. In the end, too, you get what you pay for.”

I sympathize with Silber’s outrage and admire the frank way he expressed it. But is he right to demonize Demand?

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