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Samizdata quote of the day

If only the people writing the newspapers knew things, eh?

Tim Worstall

20 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • terence patrick hewett

    To what extent does the MSM use Computer Generated Journalism Software/Natural Language Software. It is the industry’s dirty little secret.

    Newspapers have been using this sort of software for years: but the important thing to note is that it cannot make judgements on the veracity of information which is almost entirely subjective; unless the information is drawn from real-time as in the instance of data drawn directly from audio/visual sports commentary or directly from stock market prices. The claim that it can sort out fact from fiction is laughable. If you wish to separate fact from fiction then you have to compare the target against absolutes and there are very few of those.

    Advances in artificial intelligence in this area and the spread of tools that support it are increasingly common as is the automation of white-collar employment that was exclusive to humans. Journalism is one of the first categories that is being lost, encouraged by advances in natural language generation and fast data processing of structured data.

    You need only go over to the Daily Telegraph to see the carnage being wrought there (for good or otherwise) by technological advance. They sacked all their journalists and hired people well down the pay-scale using this sort of software.

    How many journalists now use computer-generated journalism software to take the heavy lifting out of writing multiple scenarios in advance to be tiddled up later as required? My bet is most of them.

    And it gives these journalists a spurious veneer of expertise which in fact they do not possess: see the articles in the Guardian, Telegraph, Spectator et al on futurism, science and engineering which engineers read for the laughs.

    The figures are compelling: an article can be generated in micro-seconds at an overall cost of about £12, using intern level staff, well down the pay grades.

    Narrative Science, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a company that makes computer-generated journalism software. A few algorithms can pull together sabermetrics (baseball analysis), website data, and photo/graphics and compose a sports story: or election information, financial reports, market research, and local news.

    The continuously updated sections of breaking news or sport on MSM newspaper websites are entirely automated and untouched by human hand.

    Wordsmith software have 200+ clients including: yahoo, Edmunds.com, Samsung, bodybuilding.com, greatcall, allstate, Fresenius_Medical_Care, Sling-TV, Associated Press, Orlando Magic.

    Much of the output of the major newspapers is now computer-generated from information much of which is computer-generated.

    All the major newspapers in this country now use this type of software especially in sports and financial reporting. Other companies that admit to using it are: New York Times, Big Ten Network (BTN), Fox Networks, IQT, Forbes, Dominion Dealer Solutions, Credit Suisse, Nuveen Investments, Publicis Groupe, Mastercard Worldwide, Deloitte, American Century Investments, CIA, USAA.

    Computer generated or partly computer generated content including; text, graphics and pictures should be labelled and identified.

  • Mr Ed

    tph, fascinating, thank you.

    I wonder how many advertisers are paying for adverts in computer-generated stories where the viewing figures are boosted by bots? It all might end up the perfect closed system.

  • Very interesting indeed, TPH. I’d like to say no wonder so much is crap, but I am not convinced it was any better before.

  • Alisa

    What about the names in the bylines then? I guess it means that The Economist articles have been produced by bots for several years now?

  • What about the names in the bylines then?


  • Alisa


    I have been quite successful in ignoring SW since the first one came out in theaters (even though it had the young Harrison Ford in it!), and it ain’t going to change now 🙂

  • Mr Ed

    On reading the comments on the OP, about Elon Musk’s stock options at Tesla, this comment caught my eye.

    Cathy Newman, Ace Reporter
    January 24, 2018 at 12:43 pm
    So you’re saying ALL women are electric cars?

  • Umbriel

    @TPH — the sad thing being that it’s the boots-on-the-ground writer/reporters being displaced by this technology, and not the clueless pundits who still manage to draw sizeable media salaries.

  • It all makes sense now. Cathy Newman was a hologram programmed with stock Channel 4 responses.

  • JadedLibertarian

    As far as I can tell from the papers tonight, the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut was re-enacted at a Great Ormond Street fundraiser.

    Is it just me or have the media gone completely mental? Maybe it’s Trump I don’t know, but many of the things they report these days with total, straight faced credulity aren’t just implausible, they’re actually impossible. Whatever happened to the exposé, the debunk, the investigative journalism?

    Does no one actually ask questions anymore? Is regurgitating what sometime said on Twitter really good enough?

  • Bruce

    What about the names in the bylines then?


    More like “HAL”.

  • Some very interesting analysis TPH. At the same time revealing, but not surprising. I was aware of the general move from journalists doing the writing to little more than cut and pasting by interns, but the auto-generation of story texts from analysis of data feeds was an aspect that should have been obvious to me (an IT person of 30-years pedigree).

    It does illustrate the problem with the mainstream media though, if it is unable to differentiate itself from the blogosphere then it has no long term future, after all, how can you compete against ‘free’.

    So which of the UK’s major newspapers will be nationalised or at least rescued from inevitable bankruptcy by continual injection of multi million pound ‘loans’ (never to be repaid of course)?

    I’m guessing it will be The Grauniad sometime around 2028 (given that is about the time that their remaining capital will be depleted). So just as “The Arts” are subsidized by the Arts Council or whatever it is called these days, we’ll end up with the worst practices of lefty journalism being subsidized by The Journalism Council.

    Ugghh. When is that Interregnum due again?

  • Tim Worstall

    Auto-generation? Yes, it happens, but it’s at an earlier stage than TPH thinks. Stock reports? Used to be the bread and butter of financial journalism. “XYZ Corp has reported profits of $A” etc, etc. Forbes, certainly, uses a ‘bot to do this now.

    But it’s not got a great deal further than that in general journalism. One problem is rather that people with no wider world knowledge are writing the stuff without any subeditorial oversight. For that’s what subs really used to do. Not just check language and typos, but the sense and sensibility as well. Had this with a recent Times piece. “Where does that number come from, can’t find it myself.” – The Times being one of the few places which still does have a proper subs desk.

    That’s what the problem I was complaining about here is. People just not being able to immediately understand that Musk’s stock award cannot be worth $7 billion at current prices. Because if it were then he’d (or the company) have a tax bill of $1.4 to $2.8 billion due this tax year. That’s just not the way these things are done. It’s background knowledge lacking in this case.

    The other problem is churnalism. Here’s a PR release, top and tail it and you’ve got an article, well done you. No critical thought going into it at all.

  • One problem is rather that people with no wider world knowledge are writing the stuff without any subeditorial oversight.

    I see the same in reporting from war zones, once the preserve of journalists who were proper ‘war correspondents’ who were at least able to tell at sight a Mauser from a javelin 😉 Now, an infantryman with a Kalashnikov rather than lugging a crew served weapon or even an RPG is “heavily armed” rather than just “armed”. It’s a rifle FFS. An APC is “a tank”. Self-propelled artillery is “a tank”. Pretty much anything with a weapon and tracks is “a tank”. A frigate is a “battleship”. Pretty much anything with a gun on it that is too large to be hung by the davits is reported to be “a battleship”. The occasional tank is lost to an ATGW and suddenly tanks are reported to be obsolete (yet strangely when an infantryman gets shot in the head, no one says infantry is obsolete). Someone blazing away with an AKM from a window 100 metres away is a “sniper”. It just goes on and on and on. Better if they just point cameras, take pictures and simply STFU, don’t write anything other than mentioning in which shithole the pictures were taken.

  • Surellin

    “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” – Ben Rhodes, Obama White House advisor

  • Jacob

    “Better if they just point cameras, take pictures”
    Not necessary. Use drones.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men is a humorous book that covers a group trying to develop computer generated newspaper items, it was written in 1985.

    Not to be confused by several films and books of similar name since.

  • Fred Z

    In 1979 I was interviewed by a young, stridently socialist, female, reporter for a local daily. She was senior enough to have her own by-line.

    She knew less than nothing about the subject of the interview, in that all of the things she “knew” were wrong. Her published story was idiocy piled on idiocy. For some reason she had taken a liking to me and the story was complimentary to me, but every good thing she wrote about me was stupid, embarrassingly wrong. My professional colleagues tormented me about it for years.

    There is nothing new about incompetent writing in the media, which is where people too stupid even to teach wind up.