Robo-journalism: software as sports writer

As some of you may or may not know, I freelance for the Phnom Penh Post sports section on occasion. So this story in today’s New York Times resonates for more reasons than one.

ONLY human writers can distill a heap of sports statistics into a compelling story. Or so we human writers like to think.

StatSheet, a Durham, N.C., company that serves up sports statistics in monster-size portions, thinks otherwise. The company, with nine employees, is working to endow software with the ability to turn game statistics into articles about college basketball games.

Now, no one is yet suggesting that such software-generated stories will begin appearing in your local newspaper anytime soon. The market for this stuff is believed to be smaller universities that want coverage of their sports programs but cannot afford it. So this robo-copy will likely — hopefully — never make it further than the school Web site.


Such efficiency seems part of a larger, worldwide business trend that demands more of everything for a lot less money. In the newspaper model, that often means more wire stories and less editing, among other peculiarities. And automating sports stories — or any stories, for that matter — would certainly dovetail with the greater cost-cutting ideals that currently grip the industry.

Sure, even the best algorithm will never be able to cover breaking news, or write an editorial piece. At best, a computer will just manage to lash together a few statistics into a game brief. Or perhaps stack some economic numbers together for a business wrap. But to a publisher trying to stop the balance-sheet bleeding, that will one day look like column inches on the cheap. And the temptation will likely be far too much to withstand.