Robot reporters

Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel

Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel

Today in Intro to Media, we’re going to talk about the future of the news gathering. We’ll discuss about some media organizations’ struggles to stay afloat. We’ll review the qualities needed in the journalism job market today. And we’ll also talk about Narrative Science, a company that is using artificial intelligence to write news stories.

Background on Narrative Science, according to the company’s website:

Narrative Science began life as a Northwestern University research project called StatsMonkey. StatsMonkey was a piece of software that automatically generated baseball game recaps. The software was developed by Northwestern computer science students and journalism students who were advised by Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, both professors at Northwestern and co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory. The “InfoLab” already had a strong focus on the automatic generation of content and StatsMonkey was a natural outgrowth of that focus.

The crazy thing about StatsMonkey was that it worked. Really well. As a result, two of the students working on the project (our own John Templon and Nick Allen) joined the InfoLab (and eventually joined Narrative Science!) and continued working on StatsMonkey as a university project.

Screenshot of Narrative Science website

Screenshot of Narrative Science website

Narrative Science was incorporated in January 2010 and the business quickly grew. We scrapped StatsMonkey and built an entirely new, patented artificial intelligence authoring platform that we named Quill™.

Incredibly, the company’s algorithms can produce intelligible stories. Check out this example cited by Wired magazine:

Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning … Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all …

Moving on…

One of my favorite websites about journalism is the Nieman Journalism Lab. I consider it essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of journalism.

Below are insightful passages from recent Nieman Journalism Lab posts about journalism, education and the future.

Eric Newton

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, put the media environment into perspective. He wrote:

We’ve entered an era of continuous change. Did you change last year? You’re a year behind. Did you go digital in 2002? You’re a decade behind.
…smartphones are not a fad. Nor is social media or the World Wide Web. They are no more “gizmo” than the printing press was. They are driving a global revolution in digital content. For the first time in human history, billions of people are walking around with digital media devices linked into a common network.
The digital age is changing almost everything — who a journalist is, what a story is, which media work to provide news when and where people want it, and how we engage with communities. The only thing that isn’t changing is why. We still care about good journalism (and communications) because in the digital age they still are essential elements of peaceful, productive, self-improving societies.

When talking to students, I try to drill home the point about continuous change. It is a fabulous time to be a journalist. The Internet gives us an infinite amount of information about every imaginable topic. Quickly evolving tools and technology allow us to plow through information and find the details we need. Knowledge and information is there for the taking. But how do teachers persuade students to dive in, learn and use their time wisely?

It isn’t easy. The World Wide Web is a fabulous resource, but it can also be an enormous distraction, even an impediment to learning.

I tell students they must be engaged, not passive. Three essential qualities journalists must have are curiosity, drive and a willingness to work hard.

It’s no time for complacency. The competition in journalism is fierce and those who don’t have the commitment and sense of purpose won’t make it.

Miranda Mulligan

So how do teachers train the next generation of journalists? Miranda Mulligan, executive director of Northwestern’s Knight News Innovation Lab, urged students to boost their tech skills. She wrote:

The list of jobs for designers and journalists who can write code is growing — seemingly exponentially. So, let’s all grab our copies of The Art of War and attack this problem from every angle: We need to teach our students to be more technologically literate. We need to teach them how to learn and how to fail. That, my friends, is making the Internet. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

Mindy McAdams, an online journalism professor at the University of Florida, said many students are reluctant to learn technology. She wrote:

Mindy McAdams

Most of them chose journalism because they like to write. Anything that involves HTML, CSS, code, or programming makes many of them almost shut down, shrink away, move toward the door. We have all kinds of challenges in journalism education, but this one is front and center, right now. It’s not just students’ avoidance of things perceived to be somehow math-related. It’s also:

    • Reluctance to spend time exploring something that doesn’t have an explicit or immediate payoff
    • Skepticism or negative attitude toward any task that’s not spelled out in detail
    • The tendency to give up and say “I can’t” or “I don’t know how”
    • Preoccupation with a process, such as writing, instead of with stories

McAdams said it’s not enough that she learns new technology. She wrote:

The problem with my (or any teacher’s) spending 20 or 30 hours learning a set of tasks for doing, say, data journalism, and then distilling what I’ve learned into two or three hours of teaching, is this: My students still don’t know how to do what I did. Even if they get the same end result I got, they don’t know how to start from zero and get there. And for the next task, it’s the same.
The ability to learn on your own and teach yourself new skills depends on your willingness to play, experiment, make mistakes, and stick with things that take much longer than you had expected. But the reality of American education in 2012 is that if the teacher is not going to grade an assignment, the student will not do it. Unless, of course, they must do it under the teacher’s nose, during class.
Something I’m experimenting with this semester is refusing to give a grade (or ultimately giving zero points) for work that’s less than good. In other words, if A is “excellent” and B is “good,” then anything less than a B must be done over, or it earns a zero. So we still have deadlines, but in the world of journalism work, we can’t publish or broadcast or upload C work.

Bill Grueskin. Photo: Piotr Redlinski

Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs of Columbia’s journalism school, warned against taking the jack-of-all trades approach. He wrote:

The phrase we hear now is the “Swiss Army knife” journalist. LinkedIn features a number of journalists who tout their multiple skills. One describes himself this way: “Photographer, videographer, web designer, graphic designer….I was a Swiss Army knife in the office.”
But this one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business. Yes, journalism is going digital. But that means many different things.
Crafting web video, deploying Twitter as a reporting tool, and presenting data-driven graphics all fall within the umbrella of “digital journalism,” but they have little in common with each other. Indeed, the skills barely overlap.
Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has a robust Career Services office with a career expo that regularly attracts more than 100 employers a year. Those news organizations don’t often ask for “do-it-all” journalists these days, says Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students.
Instead, they are chiefly focused on students who understand the value of reporting, news judgment, and writing. They often say they want students who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific digital skill or two. Having additional skills is a plus, but without strong fundamentals, they don’t land top jobs.

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, managing editor of Journalist’s Resource at Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government, said the value of basic reporting has dropped, but “deep context and added-value knowledge around news” remains “scarce commodities.”
With that in mind, Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto has a program to train experts and specialists to become journalists, rather than trying to teach journalists to write about specialized topics.
Rob Steiner, director of the school’s Fellowship in Global Journalism program, wrote:

Rob Steiner

Imagine journalism that is as smart as the giant pool of available knowledge now online. Then imagine it brought to bear through new, more-personalized social streams and rendered through more engaging platforms and applications.
Our Fellowship in Global Journalism deliberately recruits subject-matter experts — academics and professionals — and teaches them to break news in their own disciplines for media around the world. Like medical students, our Fellows spend only a couple of hours a day in class. They spend most of their time working their own beats as stringers for major media; those are our so-called teaching hospitals.
Our fellows don’t get homework; they pitch, report and file to newspapers like The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Dallas Morning News, and The National Post; to broadcasters like CBC News and to specialty news agencies like the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s
They don’t have professors; they have journalism coaches in the University and editors on the desk.
They don’t get marks; their stories either run, or get spiked.
They don’t get a degree; they don’t need another degree.


Questions for discussion:

  • How have digital technology and the Internet disrupted traditional news media organizations?
  • How have media organizations responded?
  • What is the role of the media in our democracy?
  • What is the driving force behind most media organizations?
  • Are for-profit business models the best way to gather and distribute news?
  • Give some examples of non-profit journalism organizations?
  • What are citizen journalists?

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