Startling digital developments on the ‘Faux News’ front

If you think Daily Sentinel columnist Denny Herzog has a thing about Fox News, wait until he hears about this.

A couple of professors on the campus that hosts one of the country’s most prestigious journalism schools have joined with venture capitalists to form a start-up company around software that takes raw data, runs it through a computer and produces a finished news article.

“I thought it was magic,” venture capitalist Roger Lee said in a New York Times column by Steve Lohr, about the program produced by Narrative Science of Evanston, Ill. “It’s as if a human wrote it.”

Please don’t tell Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton about this development. To the extent there’s any data involved in the musings of yours truly, Josh Penry, Bill Grant, Rick Wagner or the aforementioned Denny Herzog, our monthly beverage funds could be in jeopardy.

Well, perhaps that just applies to Grant. A casual perusal of recent columns reveals that the ex-professor is the only one of us who regularly relies on data as a basis for his punditry, much to the dismay of those among you who confuse today’s weather with long-term climate trends. The rest of us don’t usually allow anything resembling actual facts to get in the way of our opinions.

(Don’t get all huffy about that. You know you listen to Rush and watch Fox News or MSNBC to get “real” news. Why should you expect any more from us?)

The outfit started by Larry Birnbaum and Kris Hammond, co-directors of something called the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University, takes statistics from financial reports, sporting events and the like and cranks out articles.

It’s not science fiction. The Big Ten Network, according to Lohr’s piece, started using the technology a year and a half ago to post game recaps on its web site. Sports editor Patti Arnold won’t want to hear the going rate is $10 for 500 words.

As with most entrepreneurs, the sky is the limit.

“In five years, a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize,” Hammond is quoted as saying.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve noticed it’s getting harder and harder to tell Mike Ferris’ new Fords from the Toyotas on his neighboring car lot, Mark Miller’s Cruzes or Malibus, or Bob Fuoco’s Nissans and Hondas

Most of what passes for today’s country music might as well be generated by a computer (and probably is, including the size of the hats and the depth of the cleavage) and synthesizers have been a fixture in pop music for decades. Jazz, with apologies to KAFM’s Harry Griff, has always been like fingernails on a blackboard to this Luddite, who should belatedly update the simile and say it sounds like computer noise.

“Will ‘robot journalists’ replace flesh-and-blood journalists in newsrooms?” Lohr asked in the Times.

I don’t think so. Folks like Mike Wiggins and Dennis Webb and Emily Anderson will still be vital. Someone still needs to ask the right questions and do the informed observations critical to providing the “data” necessary for Narrative Science to work its “magic.” And I flat out dare any computer to put together words as well as Rachel Sauer, no matter how sophisticated the programming from the Intelligent Information Laboratory might be.

Fun as it might be to run one of Rick Wagner’s columns through some computerized examination of reasoning, I suspect opinion writers may also still enjoy some longevity in this industry, where the supply of dead trees may be a bigger concern than composition by remote control.

But yours truly may be vulnerable.

I remember proudly showing my middle-school-aged son through the then-new City Hall and City Council chambers during dedication ceremonies. As we walked up behind the elevated semi-circular desk where his father would be participating in all those important decisions, a red flag went up.

“Oh, no!” Tony exclaimed to his mother. “They gave Dad a computer. Now he’ll be using swear words on TV.”

“A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.” — Mitch Radcliffe.

Jim Spehar already hit the “send” button. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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