Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Was This Sports Blog Post Written By A Sports Blogging Robot Who Might Be Evolving Into A Less-Bad Writer?

Illustration for article titled Was This Sports Blog Post Written By A Sports Blogging Robot Who Might Be Evolving Into A Less-Bad Writer?

No. But if it were, you might not know! At least, that's sort of the premise of this follow-up about an army of sportswriting robots — you know, the ones that may just render sports writing obsolete. Except, they won't.


Businessweek presents three examples of so-called ledes from a Michigan-Iowa baseball game, which Michigan won, 7-5. Two come from the universities' sports information departments, and one from the robots of Narrative Science, a Northwestern-based company that "specializes in 'machine-generated content.'" (There's something about that sentence that just makes me shudder. The machines — they're alive!) Anyway, Businessweek begs, guess which one was from the robot people:

"The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium."

"Michigan held off Iowa for a 7-5 win on Saturday. The Hawkeyes (16-21) were unable to overcome a four-run sixth inning deficit. The Hawkeyes clawed back in the eighth inning, putting up one run."

"The Iowa baseball team dropped the finale of a three-game series, 7-5, to Michigan Saturday afternoon. Despite the loss, Iowa won the series having picked up two wins in the twinbill at Ray Fisher Stadium Friday."



The correct answer is So-Called Lede No. 2, with writing that is Hemingwayesque at best and, well, machine-like at worst. (It skews toward the latter.) Of course, it's also mindnumbinly boring, like most press releases or first-edition wire stories about 7-5, anticlimactic Big Ten baseball games between Michigan and Iowa. The computer scientists behind Narrative Science — Dr. Frankensteins, if you will — say they are working toward making the program "a less bad writer" and that "the 1,000th story of a subject is materially better than the first," which is sort of like saying that the award-winning Podunk Press has a brighter future than the non-award-winning God-knows-where Gazette across the county line. The problem with something called "machine-generated content" is that it does nothing more than spew out what any interested geek can glean from a box score. It commoditizes press releases and generic wire copy, which should not be confused with sports writing or sports blogging or, dare I say it, the hacky of the hackiest, which I prefer to deem sportswriting. Writing has color, and it has characters, and it has life. It gives people a reason to read and re-read; it is affecting. There is nothing of the sort in "Michigan held off Iowa for a 7-5 win Saturday."

So yes, the Narrative Science automatons might just make "some writing by humans obsolete," as the writer claims in his "bottom line." It's just not the sports writers or the sports bloggers or even the sportswriters who are doomed to oblivion.


Are Sportswriters Really Necessary [Businessweek]
Automated Journalism [Gannett Blog]
Sportswriting Robot Getting Better With Practice [NYO]

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