Robots Writing (and editing) Articles

Editors: Your job is about to get outsourced — and that’s a good thing. Because it means knowledge workers doing less monkey-work.

During my career as a carpenter, I felt like I was in a safe place because building houses could never be automated. 3-D printers are about to take that safety net away. Moving into an editorial career, again, I felt secure that my job couldn’t be automated away. I believe that still to be true, but the job is changing dramatically. Five years ago when one of my colleagues told me that he thought we (as editors) would be entering content directly into a CMS rather than Word, the idea sounded pretty foreign. But that was exactly the focus of my last editorial position, when Hanley Wood recruited me to move their residential construction group to a digital-first workflow.

An automatic copy editor?

One day, during my tenure at Hanley Wood, I forwarded an article about a new Firefox plugin built by the Associated Press called Lingofy to all of my editors. Lingofy does a lot of what copy editors traditionally do. According to AP, it:

 “…proofs the content you create in Web browsers, helping find errors in spelling, usage and AP style as you post to WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and more.

Unlike traditional spell-checkers, Lingofy is a server-based solution that parses text in phrases, applying advanced algorithms which allows greater precision in flagging errors in spelling, AP style and usage.

It can also be customized to meet your editorial organization’s needs (is tablesaw one word or two?). Subscriptions start at $79.99 for one year for use on Firefox, Explorer and Chrome. How much do we pay copy editors these days? Can $80 per year alleviate the workload of your overtaxed production staff?

You can wring your hands and argue. You can forward editorials like this one to me when I tell you about Lingofy. You can tell me that a publication’s credibility will be diminished if errors creep through to the final copy. Or you can face the fact that you don’t need to do all of that monkey-work and move on. Face it, automatic dishwashers are a great thing. Vacuum cleaners are a great thing. Spell check is a great thing. Why on earth wouldn’t we want to use a style guide plug in?

Beats me, but one of those editors forwarded that editorial to me. Others thought I was trying to downsize them. In fact, I was trying to add value to them—now I can promote you into a more important position and bring value to the company.

But that’s just the beginning. Lingofy is a glorified spell-check. Computer plugins can’t actually write the articles. Can they?

Automated reporters already exist, too

At the 2013 Housing Leadership Summit, Builder magazine hired Andrew Mcafee as the keynote speaker. He talked about robots and computers competing with humans for knowledge work. The video below is a truncated version of that speech. At 2:51 of this video, Andrew shows examples of news articles written by computers.

If you are rewriting press releases, and thinking that your job is secure, then you had better think again.

 

Not only can computers rewrite press releases, they can also write articles based on piles of data. This is important because a common joke around newsrooms is that people go into journalism because they are bad at math.

Narrative Science reads data from Google Analytics, writes sentences from the data, and forms paragraphs from the sentences. Check out this monthly report on a now-defunct blog that I used to keep, FamilyRoadtrippers.blogspot.com:

<—Begin computer data transformation —->

familyroadtrippers.blogspot.com Report for Month of March

Visits

+ 179%

Avg Time On Site

+ 436%

Pageviews

+ 254%

Traffic to your site was up 179% to 131 visits last month, and up 72% from 76 visits year-over-year. The rise in traffic was driven by direct visits, growing 150% to 110 visits.

  • Relative to the month of February, the percentage of total pageviews from your top ten pages fell to 25%. FamilyRoadTrippers.com, on the other hand, saw an increase in pageviews, growing 280% to 57.
  • On average, visitors stayed on your site much longer last month than they did the month prior (77 seconds versus 14 seconds). A year ago, visitors were spending 14 seconds on your site, so you’ve improved your stickiness since then.
  • There were more unique visitors last month (up 174% to 129). That’s also more than the same month a year ago when your site had 75.

Visits At Highest Level In 13 Months

Mail Attachment

Paid Search

It looks like you don’t have paid search data for your site yet. You can learn more about Google AdWords here.

Traffic Sources

Although Blogger was once again your top referral in terms of social traffic, the number of visits coming from the site was down 87% from a month earlier to 2. Note too that visitors from Blogger had a bounce rate of 100%, which was higher than your site average for social traffic.

New Referrals

semalt.com and a porn site were the new referrers that drove the most traffic last month with 14 visits and 1 visit, respectively.

These are the new links that started sending you traffic last month for the first time this year.

REFERRAL

VISITS

AVG TIME ON SITE

SEMALT.COM

14

0 SECONDS

A Porn site

1

0 SECONDS

LONELYPLANET.COM

1

0 SECONDS

MANGIBLOPLES.BLOGSPOT.COM

1

0 SECONDS

*Note that for referral visits with an average time on site of zero, there was likely only one pageview, so Google Analytics was unable to calculate an average visit duration.

Audience Segments

New vs. Returning Visitors

Although new visits rose to 128, they accounted for a smaller proportion of total visits (98%). New visitors spent 20.5 fewer minutes on your site than returning visitors did last week. This could indicate that your new visitors didn’t find the information they needed or came to the site expecting something else.

Mobile

Even though your site’s mobile traffic remained flat at 2 visits month-over-month, traffic jumped up 100% compared to last year. In general, your site’s mobile and desktop traffic look the same, but last month desktop users outshined mobile users in several metrics. There were more new visits (110 versus 2), a lower bounce rate (93% versus 100%), and desktop visitors spent 4 more seconds on your site at 4 seconds than your mobile visitors. They also viewed more pages per visit (1.1 versus 1).

Locations

The United States was the country with the largest number of visits again last month (46), up 254%. California was the region that helped drive traffic with an 800% increase to 9 visits. New York and New South Wales dropped out of the top five regions by visits last month. Each slipped from first to fifteenth and fifth to sixteenth, respectively.

<—-end computer data transformation ——->

WOW. I would have paid someone 30-50 bucks an hour to translate data into sentences that were grammatically correct and punctually perfect. Or at least grammatically and punctually good-enough.

If you are hanging your hat on your grammatical skills, or feeling smug because no one in your office can do the monkey-work that you do, it might be wise to update your resume. Narrative Science is not the only company that can turn data into sentences, baseball box scores into newspaper articles, or press releases into — well, slightly better articles than a press release. Poynter says that robots will write 1 billion news stories in 2014. 

Does this mean doom for journalists and editors? Hell no. But it does mean that you should concentrate on adding value and perspective to your writing and reporting. To managers, it means that you can now get a lot done with a lot less—and that, after all, has been the battle cry of editorial organizations for years.

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