The basest complaint in newsrooms is that AI will “steal” publishing jobs by deskilling work that “belongs” to people. Without a doubt, technology has been pilfering newsroom jobs for more than a century. The telephone increased reporter efficiency by allowing journalists to remain in the newsroom instead of wasting time traveling to collect stories. Photographs replaced newspaper and magazine illustrators. Computer typography displaced make-up room artists, typesetters and pressmen. Answering machines displaced telephone operators and secretaries. Word processors and spell-checking and grammar-checking software streamlined the jobs of writing, editing and copy editing. Transcription bots like Otter.ai have obliterated the transcriptionist slot. Reporters who once had to go to the library, consult the newspaper’s morgue or contact sources to assemble facts for a story now lean on Nexis and the web for much of the same grunt work.
Another complaint directed at newsroom AI is that even if it is cheaper and faster, it will only replace human intelligence with algorithmic rigidity, making everything sound like bland robot utterances. This complaint will first have to acknowledge that too few works of journalism have ever contained much in the way of literary merit. Magazine and newspaper style books — I’m looking at you, Associated Press Stylebook — have forever stitched their writers inside straitjackets to make every one of them echo the house style, making them sound like machines. Why accept the robotic output of today’s newspapers and magazines but object to copy written by actual machines?
Fine writing has a place, but you don’t find it very often in newspapers. But that’s okay. Fine writing has been fetishized for too long in too many places. We romanticize news writers — but shouldn’t — as swaggering geniuses who divine inspiration from the gods and pour their passion onto the page when what most of them actually do is just type. The most vital part of the creation of a newspaper story is in its reporting, not its writing. Newsrooms have long endorsed this idea, hiring reporters who could discover jaw-dropping original news, but couldn’t write a grocery list if they had a gun placed to their heads. Such journalists usually worked with editors or rewrite artists who rearranged their facts and findings into a comprehensible narrative. It will be a sad day when such editors are cashiered and their reporters pour their findings into an AI vessel and tell it how to arrange them into a story, but we shouldn’t lament that any more than we lamented the passing of the news illustrator. [Continue reading…]