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I don’t need no stinking writers. I got a computer program.

February 20, 2012

Forbes Among 30 Clients using Computer-Generated Stories Instead of Writers.

As writers, we’ve probably always assumed that certain protections were build into our profession. Companies might be able to outsource the help desk and live with the results.

If you outsourced your writing…well, who’s going to read a newspaper or magazine with the written equivalent of Peggy? No one.

Peggy’s not the threat. According to GalleyCat, software is the threat. Specifically, software called NarrativeScience. According to the marketing collateral, “Narrative Science has developed a technology solution that creates rich narrative content from data. Narratives are seamlessly created from structured data sources and can be fully customized to fit a customer’s voice, style and tone. Stories are created in multiple formats, including long form stories, headlines, Tweets and industry reports with graphical visualizations.”

Sure it does. And the chicken sandwich at McDonald’s looks just like the big, juicy masterpiece in the ad, too.

Except apparently, Narrative Science does the job well enough that Forbes and the Big Ten Network both use it. The GalleyCat story includes a sample story, which doesn’t sound like it’s written by Peggy. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

While company shares have dropped 17.2% over the last three months to close at $13.72 on February 15, 2012, Barnes & Noble (BKS) is hoping it can break the slide with solid third quarter results when it releases its earnings on Tuesday, February 21, 2012.

What to Expect: The Wall Street consensus is $1.01 per share, up 1% from a year ago when Barnes & Noble reported earnings of $1 per share.

It’s not a masterpiece. If you do more than skim it, it feels as formulaic and awkward as you’d expect. You could probably cut it by a dozen words or more without much effort. But I’ve read worse. And for basic stories like details of earnings reports, it may be good enough to justify the reduction in cost.

Besides, it’s not this specific excerpt that should concern writers. It’s the fact that this is the baseline. The quality will only increase from here. It’ll never write the next great American novel, but this software is already removing rungs from the bottom of the writing ladder, and that’s not a happy thought.

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One Comment
  1. February 20, 2012 11:58 am

    I feel a little sick to my stomach, now. I used to generate crap like that when I was in journalism. And there were many times I thought, if I were a real programmer, I could write a program that could do this. And there it is. So glad I got out of that business.

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