Robot Journalism Isn't Scary, It's Just Plain Bad

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Headlines like "A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!" tend to get journalists a bit worked up about the future of their industry, and the recent piece from Slate's Evgeny Morozov, which bears that very headline, is no exception. Morozov discusses what at first sounds like a frightening new trend: More outlets are hiring companies that generate news articles using software. "Just feed it some statistics and, within seconds, the clever software produces highly readable stories," explains Morozov, referencing Narrative Science, the company Forbes has hired to do its robot journalism. "In the long run," he writes, "the civic impact of such technologies—which are only in their infancy today—may be more problematic." As in...if cheaper, faster robots can do it, why hire journalists? Won't this lead to the ultimate degredation of a "noble" profession? Everyone, calm down. The robots aren't very good.

To investigate, we headed to the  Narrative Science author page at Forbes, where we found some pretty useless "articles" that these potential job thieves had robotically penned. The most recent posts come from a series called the "Forbes Earning Preview," which looks at company earnings by stringing together a bunch of stats using words and plopping the results onto a template. Here's a little sampling from the most recent post, Forbes Earnings Preview: GameStop, which looks exactly like the five previous entries:

Wall Street is optimistic about GameStop (GME), which is slated to report its fourth quarter results on Thursday, March 22, 2012. Analysts project a profit of $1.72 a share, a rise from $1.56 per share a year ago.

What to Expect:

The consensus estimate hasn’t changed over the past month, but it’s down from three months ago when it was $1.73. Analysts are expecting earnings of $2.86 per share for the fiscal year.

Revenue is projected to be $3.72 billion for the quarter, 0.7% above the year-earlier total of $3.69 billion. For the year, revenue is projected to come in at $9.69 billion.

Not too many people appear to have flocked to these articles. The three most recent entries have drawn less than 1,000 page views each and zero comments. That's not much for Forbes: Just clicking around, we found articles ranging in the 3,000 to 68,000 range. And, in this Internet journalism world, page views and engagement count -- and are not mutually exclusive from writing. 

Keep in mind, "these startups work primarily in niche fields—sports, finance, real estate—in which news stories tend to follow the same pattern and revolve around statistics," explains Morozov. So, if you're a journalist who only writes in those particular fields about stats in particular and have a mediocre following, maybe you should worry. Otherwise, you're probably good. Until the robots get smarter. 

Image via Shutterstock by VikaSuh.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.