Fuck fashion, this is style –why automated journalism’s structure can never meet the benchmark of literary style.


In this age of gadgetry where computers reign supreme, software is hip. But what happens when computers take a stab at style? Literary style, that is.

Automated journalism is a type of artificial intelligence technology that generates narratives from data inputs: Feed the software data, such as scores from a baseball game, and within seconds, it produces a story.

Automated journalism technologies such as ‘Authoring engine’, the highly intelligent virtual brainchild of Narrative Science, first emerged from research conducted by journalists and engineers at Northwestern University Schools of Engineering and Journalism.

Automated journalism software can be used to generate news stories for sports, finance, real estate, and also community content and polling and elections.

Leading finance editorial Forbes magazine, for example, now uses Narrative Science’s technology to produce online articles on what to expect from upcoming earnings reports, and The Big Ten Network used it to provide game summaries for baseball and softball matches. The software can generate stories out of structured data (like baseball scores) or it can comb the web and twitter for un-structured data.

What’s more, the software collects themes and key-words from related stories in a database that, through concept-linking algorithms, are used to generate leads for future stories on that topic. It can also detect nuances in languages, for instance, to appropriately express a lop-sided score in sports differently from a simple win or loss.

Automated journalism saves companies and publishes money—according to The New York Times, publishes pay less than $10 per 500 word article created using Narrative Science’s technologies.  Wired reports that narrative science’s CEO Stuart Frankel claimed that Narrative Science’s technology can already write 20% of a Newspaper’s content. The articles are produced in seconds, and supposedly achieve complete objectivity.

These are not the fill-in-the-blank type structural templates we may be familiar with, but unique stories created using advanced, tone-sensitive software. Automated journalism will, apparently, transform journalism. One of the company’s founder’s, Kris Hammond, is placing bets that within five years a story produced by the software will win a Pulitzer Prize.

But I, like many other non-fiction lovers, have my doubts: Yes, the software can produce structure, but can it do style?

Take the journalist out of journalism and what you have is the facts—complete objectivity, as touted by Narrative Science.  But do readers really want objectivity in journalism?

One of the reasons creative non-fiction is so popular that the author is implicated into the narrative world of the story. This author involvement gives a humanistic element to hard news stories and provides reader’s with someone to relate to, all the while preparing for a twist or sequel by flagging the limitations in knowledge.

The notion of ‘objectivity’ hints at a deductive methodology, something of a boo-phrase in the arts, and for good reason: The best reportage is the inductive, feet-on-the-ground, corporeal-experience kind. It’s the type of reportage where a writer has followed a myriad of leads to produce an article imbued with all of the richness and authenticity of personal account.  Inductive, ‘saturated research’ reporting can never be truly objective, but it speaks of a greater experiential truth than deductive methodology, which whittles away story to expose raw facts.

Writing in first person, and using one’s own experiences as a platform for discussing broader issues, can impassion a potentially clinical exposition. Montaigne did it, Descartes did it, Hunter S. Thomson did it, Gay Talese, John Birmingham and Ben Law all do it— a computer cannot do it*.

Automated journalism is an exciting innovation, and no doubt has its place within the published world. But until computers can grow legs, gain a repertoire of experiences, access the five senses, and exercise the faculty of wonder, a full range of emotionality, conscience, and complex reasoning, automated journalism, no matter how advanced, will amount to lackluster reportage told through a mouthpiece of insipid objectivity—All structure, no style.

*Though this suggestion does give rise to the ever-interesting identity/artificial intelligence debate and the mysterious reflexive ‘I’…