Computers could put sportswriters out of business, but not me

SHARE Computers could put sportswriters out of business, but not me
SHARE Computers could put sportswriters out of business, but not me


Couch Slouch

There’s a sportswriting revolution going on out there, and it doesn’t involve sportswriters — thanks to “automation technology,” sports articles are now being written by, uh, computers.

Two companies — Durham, North Carolina-based Automated Insights and Chicago-based Narrative Science — are aiming to make sportswriters the next dinosaurs. These companies transfer data into written reports, rendering obsolete the ink-stained wretch sitting in a press box eating free hot dogs.

First there was the driverless car. Now there is the writer-less sports story.

This nation was built on the backs of sportswriters, and this is the thanks we get?

But who knows? With any luck, one day there might be a congressman-free Congress.

Narrative Science was started in 2010 by a bunch of Northwestern guys. That’s right, Wilbon — your people.

(Think about it. If Narrative Science were around a couple of generations ago, all these Northwestern-bred sports yakkers — Michael Wilbon, J.A. Adande, Kevin Blackistone, Christine Brennan, Rich Eisen, Mike Greenberg, Jon Heyman, Cassidy Hubbarth, Stewart Mandel, Rachel Nichols, Dave Revsine, Rick Telander, even Brent Musburger — might be working the wristwatch counter at JC Penney today.)

Can an algorithm really replace a beat writer? I guess so — never misses a deadline, less chance of libel, no bloated expense reports.

According to its website, Automated Insights’ “Wordsmith platform uses artificial intelligence to transform raw data into actionable stories and insights [and] creates content with the tone, personality and variability of a human writer.”

So it’s like Oscar Madison, with a freshly laundered shirt.

Anyway, sportswriting suddenly has become Mad Libs — just take some stats and fill in the names.

Even though this latest technology can take any data set and tell a story, I still wonder how well Narrative Science would’ve captured the essence of, say, Moses parting the Red Sea. It just seems like nitty-gritty details might get lost in translation.

Bearded man named Mo approached body of water; told tour group to wait. Body of water split in the middle. Mo and his minions walked to dry ground on other side. Mo then appeared to scratch a mole on his face, and the sea behind him swallowed up the angry mob following Mo, forcing all of them to paddle back to shore in a bad mood.

The Associated Press is using Automated Insights technology to cover more college sports than ever, events it wouldn’t have the manpower to staff. It’s already providing Division I baseball recaps via computer-generated game stories and will expand exponentially, including Division II men’s basketball.

(Which means I no longer have to depend on my Stepson of Destiny, Isaiah Eisendorf, to get Gannon University results. The 6-6 sophomore-to-be forward only updates me by text and usually limits his missives to five words or less, i.e. “We played good.” I assume his biochemistry term papers are more nuanced.)

The trend appears to be: Up with data-driven journalism, down with metaphor-driven seat-of-the-pants allegorical journalism.

But the wave of this “NateSilverian” future is not perfect. Narrative Science writes 3 million Little League stories a year yet missed the Jackie Robinson West ineligible-player scandal last fall.

And, frankly, I don’t think even a robot wants to gather data to write recaps of summer youth swim meets.

(By the way, if this automation technology is so foolproof, maybe Automated Insights should delve into personal relationships. “Today’s Automated Insight: Don’t marry him.”)

Thankfully, automation technology does not threaten Couch Slouch. For — 30 years and counting now — I use no stats, no facts and no research to construct my columns. I am both nonessential and irreplaceable; nobody else does what I do. And rather than mine data, I bribe readers, $1.25 at a time, and they keep coming back.


Q. Tim McCarver was back on national TV last week, calling a game with Bob Costas on MLB Network. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I had prepared for such a calamity by never subscribing to MLB Network. What precautions did you take? (Graham Vink; Vienna, Virginia)

A. For an extra $3.99 a month, I have a “Tim McCarver blocker’’ built into my DirecTV Premier Package.

Q. Last week you said that women are smarter than men while wondering why they don’t play high-stakes poker. Do you see the irony yet? (Joe Salo; Latham, New York)

A. You also appear to be smarter than most men.

Q. American Pharoah’s stud fee might exceed a quarter-million dollars. Jealous? (Matt Glenn; Indianapolis)

A. At this stage of my sex life, I’m just happy to get an $850 rebate for installing solar-panel roofing.

Q. Where does the NBA find all this money to pay all these players? (Henry Jacobs; Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

A. Owners are rich. Plus some of them use Groupons.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just email, and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!

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