Are Automated Game Stories the Future of Sports Reporting?

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that. I have to write a Fresno Grizzlies game story.
I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that. I have to write a Fresno Grizzlies game story.
Screencap/YouTube

The Associated Press has announced it will start providing automated coverage of minor league baseball games. By automated coverage, it means that game stories will be written by a computer program based upon stats and game information provided by MLB Advanced Media. This marks a return to minor leagues, which the AP had stopped covering in 2006.

The AP will cover all Class A, Class AA and Class AAA teams that are affiliated with major league organizations. That totals 142 teams spread across 13 leagues. Along with being made available to any media that subscribe to the Associated Press service, the automated stories will also appear on MiLB.com, which is the official website for minor league baseball, and the stories will appear on the websites of the teams, which means that Astros fans will be able to go to the Fresno Grizzlies website and read up on how the team did the day before.

The Associated Press claims that no reporters will lose their jobs as a result of this, which seems to make sense seeing as how the AP was not covering the games in the first place. And hopefully it proves a plus to fans, since this should make it easier to follow the minor league teams affiliated with their major league club.

Evan Drellich, former Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle (now covering the Red Sox for the Boston Herald), refers to this new service as primarily a play-by-play account of the game in the manner of a recap.

“The more games people are talking about,” Drellich tells the Press, “the merrier. It’s basically just a box score with words.”

What it will not do, he notes, is provide any analysis. You’ll know what happened, but not why. There’ll be no nuance regarding the game. Was the game-winning hit a bloop single no one could get to, or was it a blistering line drive? Did the batter beat the shift? The product will be simple and contain the basic information, but is something so basic really what people want to read on a consistent basis?

And what happens next? Surely the Associated Press would not be trying this approach in a vacuum without having thought of future application. Would such an approach work for other events on a larger scale? It’s got to be cheaper to have stats for the average Astros game fed into an automated program that spits out a game story without the need of sending a reporter to the ballpark or, especially, without the need to pay the travel and hotel costs associated with sending a beat writer on the road with a team for weeks on end.

“Still, such a basic digest isn’t what people want,” Drellich said. “Not most fans, anyway. A paper, or really any outlet attempting to cover a team, using such an approach to cut costs would be providing coverage that’s tantamount to agate in words, which isn’t nearly good enough when it comes to the highest levels of sport.”

And while it is difficult to see the Chronicle going to such an approach for the Texans, Rockets or Astros (though it was just several years ago that the Chronicle didn’t send a beat reporter on a late-season Astros West Coast road trip and used a local stringer to provide a story), it is foreseeable to see an organization like the Chronicle using an automated approach for other types of stories. This is something that would work really well for high school sports. It could also be something the Chronicle might use for Rice and UH sports. The paper’s beat writers don’t always travel for road games, and this way, instead of paying for a local writer to provide coverage, the Chronicle could plug the stats into the automated computer program and get a story — it should also be noted that both Rice and UH are good at providing postgame quotes and notes of interest after the games, so that a basic stats story would be easy to supplement with some game insight.

These automated game stories will be a good way for fans to get the basics of what happened in the game — Drellich calls them box scores with words. The stories will be missing the personality of the game, and important details might also be missing. It’s still early in the usage of the automated stories. Who really knows what things will look like in ten years? But it might be a good idea to start reading those automated minor league stories if you want to be ready for the future of major sports coverage. 


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