Thursday, April 08, 2010

COLUMN: Stop the presses! And the robots

Whenever people ask me why I don’t quit journalism, with newspapers going under left and right and so much upheaval in the industry, I always have the same response: “What, and leave show business?”

But the real reason is, I feel like what we’re doing here in journalism — especially at the local level — is actually pretty important. Unfortunately, people may not realize this until we go out of business and the only person left to cover their towns is Perez Hilton, whose reports will consist of a picture of the school committee chairman with “SHUT UP!” written over him with a white marker.

So you can imagine my concern at the latest disturbing development in the world of journalism: The Singularity Hub blog is reporting that there are several plans afoot to introduce actual, working robot journalists. I have some concerns about this idea, not the least of which is that it’s just another group of robots that could wind up subjugating mankind. The only reason the human journalists haven’t done that yet is because we don’t have lasers.

The blog offers several examples of how the robot journalist will gather information; for example, it “detects changes in its surroundings, decides if they are relevant, and then takes pictures with its on-board camera.” This is a definitive advantage over human reporters, who primarily tend to detect changes to the selection in the newsroom vending machine. (“Flash! The Combos have been replaced by Cheez-Its,” etc.)

On the other hand, the robot also “uses Internet searches to further round out its understanding.” So it doesn’t have anything over us in the relying-on-Wikipedia department.

Personally, I don’t see how anyone can call something that doesn’t complain, procrastinate or stay up ’til all hours consuming unhealthy food a real journalist. But the blog points out that since the robot gathers primary source information from people in the field, “that’s real journalism,” as unsophisticated as it may be. (Which is actually exactly what I tell all the people who call me to complain about our selectmen coverage. This means you, Mrs. Henderson!)

But those robots are still mostly information collectors and not writers, per se. The same blog reports that a company called Statsheet has apparently taken the process further and is planning to launch a robot sports reporter that will write college basketball coverage that “90 percent of readers would be unable to distinguish” from the work of a human journalist. As if sports stories are nothing but a bunch of stats and clichés strung together in an utterly predictable … uh-oh.

But generic sports stories are one thing — there are plenty of other types of journalism that you’d be hard pressed to get a robot to execute. Take for instance a humor column, which relies not on rote formulas but on the creativity and ingenuity of the writer. (Note to self: Insert joke about SPAM here.)

I also wonder if a robot could do a heart-tugging feature story or an in-depth news analysis. I guess the more ways we have to efficiently collect information the better, but I still say human journalists are better equipped to get to the essence of the story by choosing just the right words. Or, in the case of TV journalists, looking smoking hot and not like Jabba the Hutt’s smelter droid.

So I propose a deal: Robots can collect all the information they want, but we humans should still be the ones to ask the really tough questions and write the big stories, so the robots can actually benefit from our skills.

And in exchange, we’ll take lasers.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

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