Can a Software Program Write Articles? Apparently So.

New Program Advances Software-Generated Articles

How important is good, original content? I became a little worried the other day when I read a story in The New York Times about a new start-up company in Evanston, Ill. (Northwestern University) called Narrative Science.

Said the article: “The company’s software takes data, like that from sports statistics, company financial reports and housing starts and sales, and turns it into articles.” An expert computer scientist added that the narrative in the articles was pretty good—better than previous efforts but not Pulitzer Prize-winning either. He also said that it points to the larger factor that these programs are getting more sophisticated in their ability to write.

But the purpose of this program is not to do away with (gulp) writers. “The leaders of Narrative Science emphasized that their technology would be primarily a low-cost tool for publications to expand and enrich coverage when editorial budgets are under pressure.” The idea, for now, seems to be to allow you to cover things that you’re not covering. For newspapers, this might mean local youth sports and quarterly financial results of local companies.

The article cited the trade publisher Hanley-Wood. They’ve used the program to offer monthly reports on more than 350 local housing markets. The data was always there but the money to hire the necessary writers was not. Hanley-Wood worked successfully with Narrative Science to fine-tune the software for the construction industry.

One of the founders of Narrative Science said that “the combination of advances in its writing engine and data mining can open new horizons for computer journalism, exploring ‘correlations that you did not expect’—conceptually similar to ‘Freakonomics,’ by two humans, the economist Steven D. Levitt and the author Stephen J. Dubner.”

It’s interesting that Northwestern, the premier journalism college, is so strongly behind this. Their Intelligent Information Laboratory has a stake in the company, and John Lavine, dean of the Medill School of Journalism there, said: “This kind of technology can deepen journalism.” And deepen the school’s pockets.

On the more hopeful side, for the professional writer at least, Richard Watson—author of “Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds, Why this Matters and What We Can Do About It”—wrote on his blog “Top Trends” about Google’s recent purchase of Zagat, the restaurant guide. “Why would Google pay somewhere between $100 million and $200 million for Zagat, the restaurant guide? Why didn’t they just crowd source their own reviews or aggregate other peoples’ content rather than buying a company that still puts ink onto bits of dead trees?”

His answer? Two theories. The first is search and information, he writes. Zagat is local and Google needs local content. The second? “The less obvious thing is, perhaps, that Google wants to be known for the quality of its information, and millions of potential people with too much online time on their hands is no match for a few hundred passionate people and a handful of editors that actually know what they are talking about.”

I’ll vote for that theory. But as the Hanley-Wood example shows, this type of program could help the specialized publishing industry create more content at lesser cost. The article said that “Hanley Wood pays Narrative Science less than $10 for each article of about 500 words.” And the founders predict that the price will continue to drop. So this is certainly something that SIPA will keep track of in the future.

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Speaking of good writing, there will be a
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Mark Everett Johnson of www.copypro and Chris Moffa
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SIPA’s 28th Annual Marketing Conference
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