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Jul 2010

News automation: bad for business?

Posted in Blogging, Content creation | 0 Comments

Skimming along the waves of the world wide web a wee while back, I chanced across a rather disturbing idea, for anyone who’s ever watched Terminator: robot news. By this I don’t mean a live blog of R2-D2′s address to the American people – I’m talking about using StatsMonkey; an automated bit of software made by Intelligent Information Laboratory to create journalism from baseball statistics.

For me, this hits uncomfortably close to home. I’ve been working in journalism since I was seventeen, beavering away on subs at the Financial Times. It was hard graft there, and even more so when you were on the phone to Dow Jones, hoping they took you seriously with a high-pitched, quivering voice. But the experience was solid, and it helped me further my interest in bringing the news to the people.

However, if I was to suggest that financial journalism, the most statistic-laden, number-driven form of documenting current events, was to be automated, they’d have laughed me out of the office. “You can’t document the world of finance with a bit of code,” they’d claim. “You need real people, with real experience and talent.”

But how talented are we, really? I’ve seen robots play the piano, and though many claim it sounds lacklustre, without knowing better they’d think it was Mozart himself. There are many programs that can actually converse with you, they respond to what you’ve said with pre-programmed syntax strings and match your concepts to their comments.

So what makes these cocky programmers think they can master the craft of the written word with numbers and bits of fiddly code? Well, being a journalist, I went and had a dig around, as getting hold of these mad journo-scientists seems to be harder than curing the common cold (not that I’d know where to start, bar recommending ice cream, movies and a few days of rest).

The first piece I saw was Wired. Honestly? I thought they’d be massively against it. Surely using sports data to compile a story is no more difficult than doing the same with new technology? Cross-referencing previous scores/specifications, talking about other teams/brands, and comparing them to the  matches/devices of legend.

But I was wrong – they embraced the idea and openly stated it would be cheaper. There was more talk of software writing a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, but let’s stay out of science fiction predictions for now. The realistic side to this development is this – journalists, and especially news journalists, are simply regurgitating facts in a certain format.

This is highlighted by National Public Radio’s interview with one Kristian Hammond, co-director of Intelligent Information Laboratory. When asked about documenting Little League games, he responded:

“We could literally write a game story for every single Little League game that is played in this country. That means every kid, every dad, every family, every grandma would see the story of what their kid is doing.”

The potential of this technology is huge. The ability to document every sports game, every bit of company progress – essentially, anything involving data, is mind-blowing. I’ve had instant-message chats with a computer, and it works to a point. But news? News is formulaic.

You can call me on it all you want, I’ve done my time in journalism – news with nothing but facts is news. News with opinion is a column. News with StatsMonkey, however, might be the reason none of us have a job in ten years. Medical degrees, anyone?

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May 2010

Put Your Money Where Your Words Are

Posted in Blogging | 1 Comment »

The art of writing content, whether for a blog that you pour your very heart and soul into (that no one reads), or a company blog or Twitter account read by millions of people every workday morning, is a fickle beast at the best of times. Essentially, you’re not always going to be writing in the same tone, with the same objective. Charting your daily excursions to Asda and HMV whilst freelancing away for a tech-journo publication is going to sound extremely different to, say, the “about us” page for a billion-pound multinational corporation.

Writing for a specific audience can sometimes be extremely difficult, but it’s vital you get it right if you want to avoid more grief for both yourself and the company in the long run. It’s not difficult to imagine yourself as some kind of prophet come down from on high, passing out words of wisdom as your fingers fly across the keys. But realistically, you’re simply the mouth that a big company speaks out of, and you need to keep this in mind when composing content.

There are countless amounts of content writers on the web panicking away because they’re not sure if their content fits the page, or the company image, or any one of a million nit-picking, nervous signs that they’re not confident enough in the quality of their writing to attach it to the email and send it off on time. This is becoming a problem, and as you can tell from the desperate, horrified posts on the aforementioned forum, it’s mainly down to disorganisation and a lack of a self-constructed house style to work with. Writing is a lifelong skill, and you’ll never master it completely. No one does. But you can, however, improve significantly and dazzle consumers, social networkers and colleagues with your Oscar-Wildean wordplay if you put your mind to it.

Back to basics

There are a shed-load of sites with absolutely horrendous content on there. The problem with SEO is that there has to be content to work with, and if the content you’re attracting people to is so poor they’re going to wonder why it’s even on the web, then you’re facing a harder task. It’s not impossible – certainly, some people are more “information” than “presentation”, but I find it’s best to ensure the page’s content is as swish as humanly possible. So, with all due respect to the following sites, let’s take a look at some horrible examples.

There’s a great blog that publishes horrible web writing, and this is a prime example. That’s right, it’s actually a governmental site – something that demands the best content simply due to its top-level domain. However, take a look at the content on the page. Endless capitalised phrases and titles, dates, places, and a wealth of data that’s never expanded on. Below it, a simple, easier-to-read paragraph about them and what they do. Why are they the wrong way round? To some this may seem logical – formal first, casual afterwards. Problem is, most people visiting these sites don’t give a monkey’s about the formal stuff, and they’re never going to reach the casual if the opener puts them off in seconds.

The aforementioned blog also points out another stellar example, but this contains a more significant obstacle to enjoying or even reading the content on the page: the layout. Look at the colossal image up top, and tell me what has the greater impact. Not to mention the ambiguous, unwittingly pretentious opener below it. First impressions count, and a lot of people aren’t taking that into serious consideration. The layout of a website is what encourages people to explore – I’d wager most people are happier strolling through a well-maintained garden than the Amazon rainforest, and this site smacks of the latter.

The PR! Won’t someone please think of the PR?!

Any writers reading? Even if you’re an SEO consultant who writes emails on a daily basis, or a receptionist who answers queries via the same means – I’m talking to you. All of you. This is important, and it needs to be said – every word you write, every phrase and joke you use to someone that’s not paid by the same people you are, represents your company as a whole. It’s all too easy to be casual when you need to be formal, and this is a trap a lot of people get caught in, which sometimes tends to cause irreparable damage to someone’s impression of you as an industry professional.

That out of the way, the actual writers could do with a kick up the backside, as well. Research your market – a lot of writers aren’t always writing about their area of expertise, and good research is the art of proper writing. If you’re not writing about something you know, then you’re better off writing after you’ve ensured you can write about it like you do. This means learning the industry jargon, their mannerisms, and even checking to see if there’s an industry-wide level of formal/casual in their writing. For example, if you’re writing about social media, by all means, don’t write like you’re penning the opening column of The New Yorker. However, if you’re writing for a network of IFAs, then don’t use smiley faces.

Also, if you’re an avid company blogger – bear in mind that when you comment on major events in your industry, or global news, for your own sake don’t do anything rash. Everyone has their own opinions and it’s best to keep yours out of your company writing. All five hundred people working in the office building around you won’t think the same thing about the ash cloud you do, so be careful – if the CEO disagrees publically, he or she’ll be caught out, and it’ll come back to haunt you. There are a few good sources of advice on the web, so use them. Extra tip: don’t ever, ever blame social media for your blunders, either. This isn’t smart, and makes you look about as independent as an underfed puppy.

The way forward

Content writing isn’t easy if you’re under pressure to represent the company and staying informative about external topics simultaneously. Luckily, there’s a good approach: “write, check, rewrite, repeat”. Do this, and do this regularly. Get co-workers to read through your work. If someone can’t understand it, or thinks the layout is poor, that’s not their fault – it’s yours. Make sure you’re blogging, Tweeting and content-creating to a high standard, and you’ll soon find that people will see you more as a source of reliable copy than as an online irritant.

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