Listening to Michael Maness speak about the rise of online technology and the demise of newspapers during a presentation at Northeastern University was interesting and painful to hear.
Most of what he said was nothing new. Everyone knows that social media is going to play a major role in breaking news in the future. However, before I give a few thoughts on Maness and social media, I do have an issue with robots getting integrated into the sports writing world.
Over the last several years, Northwestern University has been developing robots that have the ability to write sports stories based on information it’s given. In an age where people are struggling for jobs, Maness seemed excited about the technology and prospects of robots taking over in writing sports news stories.
For me personally, and as a lover of sports, it hurts to see that a field I want to work in could be disappearing right before my eyes. I’m sure the robots will help newspapers as they’ll save editors from hiring a sportswriter to write basic game stories, but there’s more to this development.
The problem is that sports are intimate and emotional.
They require a human element to write a compelling game story. Fans and readers not only like to read about the stats, and what happened over the course of the game, but they want to know how the players felt. How did he or she work towards accomplishing a particular feat such as home run title? Only a writer tied into a team over the course of a season can really understand that. In fact, most sportswriters have an approach or connection to a team that many people don’t have. Fans want to read about their thoughts and analysis of what happened.
Think about it this way. The 2004 postseason run that the Red Sox went on was so emotional and epic that no robot could ever write about the events that transpired. The sportswriters in Boston such as Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan waited since birth to see the Red Sox win the World Series. In the end, the game stories they wrote were among some of the best stories ever written in Boston sports history.
Robots don’t have the knowledge, the full ability, the emotion, the understanding and the love of sports to write stories that’ll intrigue readers. Maybe one day they will, but hopefully not anytime soon.
The robot story examples that Maness showed just seemed like boring recaps that a newspaper would use to fill up blank space. What serious sports fan would want to read that. Robots can do the basics, but it’ll be a matter of time before they can write and do a lot more.
I think newspapers need to tread very carefully when it comes to robots. They may seem like a good idea, but there’s always two sides to a story and more that meets the eye. Let real writers who’ve worked hard and have the knowledge write all sports stories.
As far as other digital technology goes, everything else Maness said isn’t new news to me. Interactive and social media is slowly taking over what the idea of a news story once was. News isn’t going away, it’s just getting told differently.
He said that people today get news in ways that were once seen as impossible. Facebook and Twitter are probably the most widely used websites on the planet. Since they’re used a lot, it’s only fitting that news is broken through them. Stories are broken through platforms such as Twitter because it’ll reach more people. In fact, most news organizations have a presence on both social media giants, and usually break important stories so readers can comment on them.
I also found it fascinating how much people value visual designs. Through his research, Maness discovered that the better the layout, the more credible the news site is. In other words, if the site is a legitimate news organization with an amateur layout, then why should people take it seriously? If that organization doesn’t want to adjust to the times, then they obviously aren’t that serious in reporting news. That’s the feeling people might get, so in order to get eyeballs onto a webpage, the site has to be revamped. It needs to be user-friendly, interactive and not boring.
People crave information minute by minute, and they want to be able to decipher it in the easiest way possible. If it looks boring or is hard to understand, they’ll move on and find another way to get news.
Maness had some interesting facts and takes on digital technology. He is right about news changing, but it’s only changing in the way it’s presented. There’s always going to be story, and always an audience willing to read one. With news easier to access than ever before, news organizations have a chance to embrace digital technology and to stand head and shoulders above their competition. Like the military, media outlets have to adapt to a situation in order to survive. It’s the only way they’re going to remain relevant in this digital age.
That’s unless robots take over and we’re all screwed.