Trends

When Robot Writers Take Over, Will Freelancers Be Obsolete?

By Joe Lazauskas April 11th, 2018

When you read headlines like “The Washington Post’s Robot Reporter Has Published 850 Articles in the Past Year,” it’s bound to give you nightmares. Hell, I just had a nightmare that Contently fired me and replaced me with robot Will Smith, which is probably a sign I need to stop watching I, Robot every time I fly Delta.

Fortunately, while automation is destined to disrupt our professional lives to an epic degree over the next decade, I don’t think writers should be worried. They just need to hone their skills to do the things robots cannot.

Algorithms like Heliograph, the Washington Post’s AI technology that spits out short articles, have gotten pretty damn good at relaying objective information backed by data, such as recaps of sporting events and analysis of financial reports. These are boring, formulaic assignments usually given to cub reporters in newsrooms as a form of experience before they move up the ranks. It’s such a brainless activity that some reporters simply use a Mad Libs-style template to produce them.

What the robots aren’t very good at, however, is telling stories that build an emotional connection with an audience. They can’t connect with a reader by sharing a personal anecdote or describing the protagonist of a story with a vivid description. Robot writers can’t use first person—at least not until we reach the singularity.

Neuroscience tells us these are the exact stories that build human connection. Our brains are wired to light up when we can relate to a narrative. That’s why a story in a far-out world like Star Wars works; Luke is the archetype of the working-class underdog called to great adventure, riding around in spaceships that look like 1950s hot rods. Even though the Star Wars universe is foreign on the surface, we can still connect to Luke and the world he inhabits.

This dynamic can also apply to blog posts, even if they’re for B2B companies. I was the editor-in-chief of Contently’s blog, The Content Strategist, for years. The worst-performing posts were the ones that began with bland stats or facts. The best stories began with a personal anecdote or a vivid scene that the audience could relate to—like this confessional about my biggest shortcomings or this profile of Marriott’s newsroom.

I often speak to college students who want to become professional writers. Many professors still preach the old-school route—cutting your teeth as an entry-level reporter writing straightforward news stories. While these assignments can make you a more concise writer, the jobs that generate these stories are going away. If you want to make it in 2018, you need to be able to find unique, human stories, and tell them with an engaging voice. And you need to be able to tell those stories across mediums—text, video, audio, graphics, and everything in between.

So, there’s not much to worry about when it comes to some AI reporter taking your gigs, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have work to do to keep up.

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