Robo-reporters need human editors

This week, I’ve used Twitter to follow the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. This morning, this tweet from Steve Buttry of Digital First Media caught my eye:

robo-tweet

I clicked on the link to the image, which is what the ASNE audience saw at a presentation by Michael Maness of the Knight Foundation. It shows the first several paragraphs of a computer-generated story about a baseball game. Here’s what it looked like:

robo-story

Buttry also tweeted a link to a blog post by David Carr of The New York Times that includes the full text of the robo-article and and an explanation of the technology behind it.

The bot-written article does a pretty good job of mimicking a sports story you might see from The Associated Press or ESPN.com. You know who won the game and how. But it has glitches and a big hole.

On the micro-editing level, I detect mistakes in punctuation: a comma splice here and a run-on sentence there. The lead and other segments of the story are wordy, especially for digital media.

On a macro-editing level, I would add a sentence or two to explain the references to Nick Adenhart and “what happened in April in Anaheim.” The robo story never provides that explanation, leaving the reader hanging (or Googling).

And, as noted by Carr in his blog post and by copy editor Jay Wang on Twitter, the fact that the Angels clinched the series needs to be higher in the story. That’s big news.

Are robot reporters a part of journalism’s future? Perhaps, but they will still need human editors.

His is no disgrace

Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.

Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.

Howard Kurtz, a longtime observer and critic of the media, himself made news this week, leaving CNN for Fox News and trading “Reliable Sources” for “Fox News Watch.”

In reporting this move, many publications took the opportunity to point out Kurtz’s own shortcomings as a journalist. For example, a blog post Kurtz wrote earlier this year about gay NBA player Jason Collins was retracted because of “several errors” and “a misleading characterization.”

That’s certainly a relevant and timely detail. But a few publications took that a step further in their headlines, labeling Kurtz as “disgraced.” It’s probably predictable that The Huffington Post, known for its overheated headlines, was one of them. But it’s surprising that Bloomberg News also used that word to describe Kurtz. It revised the headline and omitted the word, but “disgraced” lives on in the URL for that story.

“Disgraced” indicates actions that are dishonorable or dishonest. I’ve used that adjective on this blog to describe John Edwards, the former senator whose political career and personal reputation imploded because of an extramarital affair. In journalism, I would be comfortable using “disgraced” to describe plagiarists and fabricators like Jayson Blair.

Kurtz has made mistakes, just as any person has, but they appear to be honest ones made from haste, not deception. And he has expressed remorse.

Those errors are, of course, especially embarrassing for someone who has made a career of analyzing the news media. But to my mind, “disgraced” does not match the level of the offenses.

News on the radio

My friend Buck Rooster (no, not his real name) does a radio show each week on WCOM, a community-run station in Carrboro, N.C. The show is called Random Acts of Music, and each week, Buck explores songs tied around a theme.

This week, I will join him as  guest DJ, and the theme will be news. We’ll play songs about journalism, and we will also chat a bit about that topic and, more specifically, the newspaper industry. Print media have, as noted here, changed a lot since Rupert Holmes placed a classified ad in “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

The show airs Thursday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT. If you live in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, turn your dial to 103.5 FM. If you live outside the area, you can listen via the station’s website. I hope that you’ll tune in, and yes, we will be taking requests.

UPDATE: I regret to inform you that my gig as a guest DJ on WCOM has been postponed. We’ll try again on Thursday, June 27 Thursday, July 11.

FURTHER UPDATE: The show went very well tonight — good music and good conversation. Thanks to Buck Rooster and WCOM for your hospitality. Here’s a sampling of songs we played:

“Sunday Papers” (Joe Jackson)

“Mr. Reporter” (The Kinks)

“Fred Jones Part 2” (Ben Folds)

“Want Ads” (Honey Cone)

“Six O’Clock News” (Kathleen Edwards)

“Yesterday’s Papers” (Rolling Stones)

“News of the World” (The Jam)

“Newspapers” (Stan Ridgway)

“Dirty Laundry” (Don Henley)

“On the Cover of the Rolling Stone” (Dr. Hook)

Editing and public relations

For the most part, editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach, are populated with students with a news focus. It’s rare that a student in public relations, advertising or broadcast enrolls in my classes.

That’s not to say, however, that editing isn’t relevant to public relations. It is. Indeed, PR requires writers and editors to do what their counterparts in news do: Put the right words in the right order.*

Here are two recent examples of where editing and public relations intersected:

  • Last month, I led a workshop on headline writing at the Raleigh offices of Gibbs & Soell, a business communications company. Besides the usual challenges of writing headlines for print and digital media, PR people also have to navigate the demands of their clients, some of whom want particular wording.
  • This week, the News & Observer reported that UNC spent more than $500,000 on PR consulting as the university dealt with an academic scandal. One of the PR tasks: revise a letter to the editor written by an athletics department spokesman.

In each instance, editing played a key role in getting the job done. It is, as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently, a portable skill. As lines blur between news and public relations and more people move between the disciplines, it’s important to understand that editing encompasses them both.

* Hat tip to Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times for this summary of what we do. I quote him often.

The option to crop a photo

On Facebook over the weekend, a former News & Observer copy editor posted an image of a front page from 2009. As you can see here, the centerpiece photograph that day was from a tea party rally.

uncropped-pubicLook carefully at the sign held by the woman on the left. You’ll see that she has made the dreaded public/pubic error. It’s a common mistake that can cause embarrassment and prompt apologies.

Now take a look at this version of the same photograph on the same front page from that day of the Raleigh newspaper:

cropped-pubicSee the difference? For the final edition that day, editors at the N&O cropped the image to eliminate the sign’s error.

But was that the right decision? As one commenter on Facebook said: “It’s not a dirty word, and the woman was there to be photographed.”