I played devil’s advocate and found ambivalence.
For many reasons, most of which concern marketing, there is a demand for ‘fresh’ written content. As discussed in other posts, this ‘fresh’ content is often a rework (or blatant copy) of writing published elsewhere. Even when the writer makes the effort to do their own research, the publisher often limits the word count to such an extent that there’s no room for exploring a topic. Those six honest serving men of a story, sardined in succinct summary, can only say similar things.
The current ability to collect, mine, and analyse data is phenomenal. Accepting that there are crucial, important, incidental, and irrelevant facts to any story, it’s not beyond the capacity of our big-data w(h!)izzards to deliver pertinent information with a layout and vocabulary that is appropriate for the interests of an intended readership. My experience of reading news stories on my chosen browser is that this algorithmic approach to reporting represents a fair automation of the professional writing process to which I am typically exposed.
It’s fair for writers to blame the limited word count for the blandness of stories. Why is it any less fair for a program’s writers and analysts to claim the same?
The digitisation process seems to have these three obvious outcomes for any profession: a mosaic of replication (copying), a development of the legacy of the pre-digital process (expedience), and an exposure to new means of doing new things with old ideas (innovation).
The creation of music offers insights here. Many modern artists use samplers to reproduce bits of previously published material and then mix it all together and add an opinion (think of rap). Some musicians use the modern music-making instruments in a traditional way, producing music that complies with pre-ordained formulae (they use software to notate scores, and play samplers to make rock or baroque, etc.). However, some musicians use the new capabilities of new musical instruments to make new types of music. [For musicians: think of voltage controlled oscillators and Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who tune (electronica); think of the brush tool, in sequencers such as Cubase, and the artist Square Pusher (drum ‘n’ base); think of the wah-wah peddle and the Jimi Hendrix experience (psychedelic rock).] It is human nature that anything pleasingly original is copied so copiously that it quickly becomes a genre.
Could these three approaches be analogous to the churn of the ‘fresh’-content creators (some website blogs), the conforming complexity of the traditional writers (quill or keyboard), and the inevitable if ephemeral uniqueness of those who adapt to the tools of the age? In our customer-led and digitally savvy future will professional writers become programmers, the best of whom can deliver content that can be appealingly presented according to the preferences of the various prejudices of each of their readers?
It seems as though the digitisation of data, and all that it brings, will affect almost everything we do in life, whoever we are: when should writers resist this process and when should writers embrace this digitisation as a means of getting closer to the core reason for being a writer?
Some related links:
- Where next for robot journalists in the newsroom? (March 2015)
- AP’s ‘robot journalists’ are writing their own stories now (January 2015)
- Assault on Writers From Automated Software (May 2013)
- How Journalists Can Incorporate Computational Thinking into Their Work (March 2011)