By: George Garneau But the product can be helpful at some small weeklies, where the process of putting scores and information from high school stringers or coaches into a story can be chaotic sp.
RELAX, SPORTSWRITERS. YOUR profession is safe ? for now ? despite the computer program called SportsWriter and a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal that received worldwide attention. The March 29 Journal story led with the tale of Dean Backes, who lost his sportswriting job at a tiny Humphrey, Neb., weekly to a software program. "The paper booted up a software program and booted out Mr. Backes," the story by reporter William Bulkeley said. "In newspaper offices around the country, computers have replaced typewriters. Now they are replacing reporters." The hitch is that both Backes and his former boss, Humphrey Democrat editor and owner Donald Zavadil, said the software had nothing to do with Backes losing his job. "The software was not responsible. That's the impression everybody gets, but it's not the case," Zavadil said. "At the time we let him go, I hadn't even heard of the program yet." Zavadil, who labors with his wife and two part-timers at the 1,800-circulation newspaper, said that in addition to covering sports, Backes was supposed to work in commercial printing and photography operations but "didn't work out." Backes, 30, who has returned to college and works in his family's farm equipment business, supported Zav-adil's account. "I don't think I lost my job because of it," he said, referring to the program, which was acquired after he left. The Journal's light-hearted feature attributed the "hardball decision to replace a reporter with software" to money. The program cost $100 compared with $1,500 a month for Backes. The Journal gave no other examples of sportswriters who lost their jobs as a result of the program despite the story's subhead: "Reporters, Sometimes Sacked, Aren't So Gleeful; Would Grantland Rice Be Fired?" Roger Helms, the software's developer, said he knows of no reporters fired from the 82 weekly newspapers using SportsWriter. "There may have been some stringers that have been replaced," he conceded, but finding good stringers at the low pay that small weeklies offer is often not possible. Journal deputy managing editor Byron Calame admitted that the story erred in linking the software with Backes losing his job. He plans to run a correction on that point. But he stands by the story's main thrust: that the program can do the work of a reporter, as shown by the Democrat, which bought the software rather than replace Backes. Zavadil, who received phone calls from newspapers throughout the country about the story and even got a clipping from a New Zealand paper, said, "Personally, I don't know what the big deal is." On the surface, it sounds like a publisher's dream: a computer program to do the work of reporters. It's not that simple. Here's how SportsWriter works: High school sports coaches fill out forms after each game and include facts needed for a basic story, such as scores by quarter, high scorers, team statistics and key plays. They can select an outstanding player and add a quote or two for good measure. They either send by fax or deliver the forms to the newspaper, where somebody types the information into the computer. Once the information is in, SportsWriter uses a set of rules to combine statistics with subjects and verbs and arrange them into paragraphs. A minute or two later, a workmanlike story emerges ? nothing fancy, just the scores, highlights, key statistics and action verbs. "Any even marginally competent sportswriter can do a better job than the program and will probably be as fast or much faster," said Helms, who is first to admit the program's limitations. Factor in the continuing costs of data entry and editing and the cost savings is small, he admitted. Even so, at some small weeklies, where the process of getting scores from high school stringers or coaches can be chaotic and sometimes produce weak stories, the software actually can improve the stories and speed up production, Helms said. If the software does improve quality and speed, it's not because the computer is doing such a great job but because the paper was doing a bad job before, said Helms, the chief salesman and only employee of Zybrainics Software of Rochester, Minn. Zavadil said he likes the results. "It allows us to cover basketball and football games that we normally wouldn't have time to sit down and watch," he said. "When you have six to eight games a week, we just don't have the time . . . . For us, it was the choice of the program or not doing some of the games. We thought for $100 we'd try and do all the games, and it's worked pretty well." He said it was a headache to get weekend games from the area's two high schools written by the 6 a.m. Wednesday deadline. Even with the software, he said, he has to take game stats home Monday night, type them into a computer and let the software do the writing. Stories are "pretty generic and sound alike, but we change them around if we have time," Zavadil said. Before Backes was hired, high school journalism students worked as string-ers. Helms said SportsWriter is of use only to very small weeklies that are so short-staffed that they have trouble covering local games or to one- or two-person papers without any strong sportswriters or good, dependable stringers. Many papers already have game results called in by coaches or stringers, including high school journalism students. SportsWriter comes in two versions: basketball and football. Licensing fees are based on circulation and start at $200. Users need Apple's Hypercard. Practically speaking, sportswriters need not feel threatened, at least not yet, Helms said. "If the only thing the program can do is second-hand reports of basketball and football games, that only takes care of a small percentage of a sportswriter's duties," he said. "What are they going to do the other six months of the year? "I'm sure there are a lot of journalists who wonder, Is this just the first step? My answer is that the technology is not there to take it any further at this time. The key phrase is 'at this time.' " Developments in the field of natural language processing could change that. Helms has gotten a lot of media attention from the Journal story but no sales despite calls from many papers, including some dailies where the number of school sports stories creates a deadline problem. But the smallest papers most likely to use the program fear the technology or the impersonality of a computer writing stories. Most other papers already have efficient systems, though larger papers with lots of schools to cover and difficult deadlines have shown interest. "It gets attention because it makes people realize that maybe we can automate mental activity as easily as we can automate physical activity," Helms said. "You end up with intellectual assembly lines." Computers writing sports stories raise serious journalistic questions, but Helms boils the issue down to: Does the reader care? "If what is driving the bottom line is cost and readers will accept it, then what's to stop it?" he asked. So far, readers have raised no objections to the abbreviated stories. Zavadil said he notified readers when he started using the program, but "we haven't had any feedback one way or the other." Even if editors edit SportsWriter stories, Helms advised newspapers to inform readers that a computer program is doing the writing because "if an artificial intelligence is speaking or writing, there's a tacit assumption that what is being read was written by a human being. I'm not sure that tacit assumption should be violated." The program is sometimes criticized as too dull, but that was intended. "My idea was it should not be colorful," he said. "It should be coldly factual. The machine has not appreciation of emotion, so it shouldn't pretend to be emotional." The three-year-old program started as a way to train stringers for a weekly that Helms hoped to buy but never did. "I couldn't figure out how to do the tutoring, but I was able to teach the computer to write about sports," he said, adding that he still hoped to develop a sportswriter's training program. Daily sportswriters took the idea in stride. "Anytime people say a machine can do your job, it's kind of unsettling," said Craig Swalboski, sports editor at the Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn. He said the program underscores what sportswriters already know: a lot of routine game coverage is boilerplate, for which they use mental templates. Swalboski's staff spends "an enormous amount of time" taking information from coaches at 35 high schools, a job that the software could speed up, he said. But with coaches given the opportunity to write self-serving quotes to be keyboarded by nonjournalists, careful editing takes on greater importance. Swalboski takes comfort in the fact that no computer can go out and cover a game or add the background, perspective or drama that he can. Yet, he remained open to the software. If SportsWriter can handle the complaints, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea, he said deadpanning.