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Blog: Robot Journalism

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More than a year ago I wrote an article for Masters of Media about automated blogs, a funny-sounding yet seriously irritating phenomenon of modern day Internet. Apparently there are some companies out there that promise, for a relatively cheap price, to get you a blog without the hassle of actually producing any content yourself. You’d think the only way to do that was the old HuffPost way – read: crowd-sourcing articles to a horde of unpaid contributors that do it for the glory – but there are quicker ways to start feeding Google’s spiders some quality, if second hand, material. All it takes is choosing your “area of expertise” and the plug-in will come up with related stories extracted from a database, gradually populating your niche blog with top-notch content. Of course the articles in the database are written by someone else, but mentioning and linking back to the author seems to be a good enough measure to create an “win-win” situation: they get the exposure, you get the traffic.

We’ve recently seen a similar trend on a micro scale, with paper.li hijacking people’s tweets to compose customized “newspapers”, albeit replacing the trite “Get rich quick!” rhetoric with some more naïve RSS-powered web2.0 enthusiasm. Despite the superficial similarity, though, paid-for automatic blogging tools claim to be better than RSS-feed-based services like paper.li or Yahoo! Pipes (a more creative but far geekier service that has recently rolled out its new engine), simply because they are able to provide full content items instead of portions or previews.

If aggregating other people’s painstakingly composed writing  – whether for profit or mere sharing frenzy – might seem a bit lame, it will hardly be the blow that kills professional journalism, already agonizing for other web-related reasons. And things are not going to get easier for writers.

In a recent article on the New York Times. Thanks to a sophisticated algorithm, the company is able to convert data in journalistic stories written with a seemingly-human flow.The software has already been used to provide instant summaries of sport events, published online only minutes from the end – needless to say, Narrative Science’s clients have been enjoying a surge in referrals and Google page rank, putting them one step ahead of their competitors.

With a fast-dropping price of 10$ an article, money-wise the product is definitely more appealing than its slow-witted human counterparts, without apparently compromising too much on quality. Founders Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum go as far as imagining a future Pulitzer-winning algorithm, once their research is mature enough. However ironic such statement might be – so far sports summaries seem to be the most exciting application of the technology – let’s try and imagine what backdrops the evolution of automatic journalism might have.

Let’s consider the phenomena described above from the author’s point of view. Who will ever pay somebody to write something ever again, when you can either leech off somebody else’s work or have a computer do it for a fraction of the price? I’m being way too pessimistic here, but on the long run unpaid writing – that is a pretty much normal state of the blogosphere and an accepted stage in the career of most contemporary (web) journalists – might become a less controversial issue than algorithm-driven writing. Imagining a sci-fi scenario where the quality actually becomes indistinguishable – however unlikely this might seem – what will the journalist become? My guess is either a coding-savvy technician, feeding data into the machine, or a romantically unemployed luddite.

From a reader’s point of view, we might wonder if real-time information – at the root of Hammond and Birnbaum’s research – is really so important that we cannot wait for some guy to type it down in a decent prose. Thing is, with social networks and RSS feeds sharing and aggregating already seem to be more popular than producing, and I think the Internet’s information economy is bound to keep expanding like the financial economy does. In the fast-growing over-production of information, on which many of the most powerful enterprises in the world are based, the atrophy of journalism – or maybe it would be more correct to say “of journalists” – paradoxically makes more and more sense. What happens when the right to know becomes a compulsive reflex?

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