Thursday 27 October 2016

Dion Fanning: Hacks transfer to dole queue in headline move of the summer

Dion Fanning

Published 19/07/2015 | 17:00

A study found that there were no significant differences in how stories written by humans — or journalists at least — and those composed by computers were perceived.
A study found that there were no significant differences in how stories written by humans — or journalists at least — and those composed by computers were perceived.

Swindon Town made news last week with their determination to make no news.

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In the coming season, journalists will be banned from attending press conferences. Instead the club's press officer will conduct interviews with players and managers which supporters will be able to access on an app called Fanzai. The club insisted it was not a blanket ban - they are contractually obliged to invite the BBC - and that any request to attend would be considered.

The club's owner Lee Power told The Guardian that the move would "put noses out of joint" but added that he wanted to "try something new". Mike Ashley has naturally been a market leader in this area.

The surprise is that Swindon are bothering with a human at all. Narrative Science is a company developing computer programmes that can write newspaper reports. Ominously for some of us they have so far concentrated on the areas of sport and business journalism but the co-founder has suggested a computer could win a Pulitzer for journalism within the next five years and may I wish him all the best with that.

A study found that there were no significant differences in how stories written by humans - or journalists at least - and those composed by computers were perceived. A typical computer-generated story produces a punchy intro like this: 'Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning.'

Of course many match reports are formulaic which is why there isn't much point in newspapers carrying them any more, but let's hope Narrative Science and other companies don't limit their ambitions to a Pulitzer. Literary awards, too, could be won by a computer given that a lot of fiction tends to cling to certain key storylines which a smart algorithm could surely detect.

There is the lonely English professor working on a critical analysis of Henry James while trying to deal with his own frustrated literary ambitions or the English professor who isn't working on a critical analysis of Henry James but is still trying to deal with his own frustrated literary ambitions, all the time trying to escape the memories of his childhood in a small Irish town. These stunning meditations on memory and loss occasionally tell us something about the human condition, but they usually manage to tell us something about the condition of humans who have taken a creative writing course at a highly-regarded university while, crucially, also impressing upon us how well-read the author is.

Working this out would surely not be beyond the capabilities of the smart people at Narrative Science but there are other areas in journalism they could explore too.

Perhaps their computers could generate transfer stories, even if the cultivating of sources who may or may not be telling them the truth could lead to some meltdowns.

It might come as a relief to those journalists who work tirelessly in this field only to be abused when the information they were given turns out to be incorrect if they could hand over the generating of these stories to a machine. It would also make little difference to those who crave transfer information.

The important thing about transfer stories is simply that they exist, feeding as they do an obsession that is not connected to reality. Of course it is better if they turn out to be right but given that most signings end up making very little difference, there is no need to search for too much logic because rationally supporters should shrug when a player is signed and say, "I won't get fooled again."

A colleague received some abuse on Twitter last week when he suggested, based on reliable information he had been given, that Morgan Schneiderlin would not be signing for Manchester United once they had brought Bastian Schweinsteiger to the club. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams of a rejuvenated Manchester United midfield.

Perhaps he would be happy for the Narrative Science machine to receive this abuse if they could come up with the formula. The journalist who dismisses a link with a player is like the man standing in your way as you attempt to buy a lottery ticket at the last minute. Logically he is denying you nothing but in the wide open spaces of the imagination, he is standing between you and a wonderful new life.

And who wants to be that joyless being? We should let hope loose, allow Liverpool fans to celebrate the signing of Roberto Firmino, who may well be the answer without pointing out that they have embraced hope previously in players like Harry Kewell, Joe Cole, Luis Alberto and Lazar Markovic. This time it could be very, very different.

Arsene Wenger receives little thanks for pursuing an extremely rational policy, promoting tired and creaking notions such as continuity and slow, incremental progress.

Of course Alexis Sanchez made a difference but there were Arsenal fans who lamented the club's failure to sign Radamel Falcao last season and beneath it all is the craving, just like Swindon Town's, to try out something new.

Perhaps it is best to hand this all over to computers and let them figure it out as they surely will. They will be able to cope when they mention a club's interest in a player and that player signs for someone else with the attendant demolishing of dreams that have lasted since the player was first linked with the other club.

We will be watched over by machines of loving grace which will happily link Liverpool with Marco Reus and Arsenal with Arturo Vidal while withstanding the suffocation of hope when they then report that these moves haven't happened.

The handling of the irrational will be taken care of by the rational and journalists can get back to working on that unfinished novel. You know the one - a stunning meditation on memory and loss about a journalist dealing with his own frustrated literary ambitions

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