I am still rolling across America, in a journey last week from San Diego to New York (again) for the DeSilva+Phillips Media  Dealmakers Summit at the Pierre, and now on to Nashville, Tennessee. More below on the conference, but first back to a theme started in my blog “News not fit to Print”.  I am becoming obsessed with the science around automated story development, and now see it everywhere I look. And everywhere I look I see a Western culture obsessed with fact-based journalism. As in Europe, much of the core material in reportage is statistical. Today is SuperBowl Sunday and the stats are coming down like dandruff, but I already wrote about Statsheets in the previous article so lets not go there. Instead, I have a copy of the Tennessean for 6 February in front of me. Lets try that.

First off, this is a good newspaper and nothing I say is intended to denigrate it. But the urge to “factualize” is all over it. Front page headline reads “Teaching immigrants is a growing challenge”. Apparently 22% of Metro Nashville public school students now need to learn English as a second language, compared to 15% in 2005. The city has, in an annual student enrolment of 78,000, 10.692 whose first language is Spanish, 1749 Arabic, 999 Kurdish, and more more and more breakdowns until we reach the Burmese and Karens at 169 and Amharic speakers at 154. Think this is a naturally statistical story? Lets go to the local news section whose arresting headline is “Execution Drug Options Limited”. Here we learn that Tennessee has 86 inmates on death row but only enough drugs to execute 8 of them. The pre-fatal injection anesthetic sodium thiopental is not now made in the US, so State governments are having to use veterinary anesthetics or buy the drug covertly in Europe – a dealer based in a British driving school offices in London is intriguingly mentioned in this connection…

But I am getting carried away. The point is that the core “Facts” of the narrative in these stories is based on the figures, and that is where Narrative Science (http://www.narrativescience.com/) comes in. As I was writing my first story this company announced a $6 million funding round led by Battery Ventures. The company was founded by a group whose experience includes Google, Doubleclick, and computing and journalism at Northeastern at Evanston, Ill. Their idea is to take all those fact-based stories and turn the facts into computer-based narrative, create templates around their recurrence and generate a new story with each update. Employment statistics, oil production, share price movements, population change etc etc. We are constantly comparing this quarter to last, or to the same last year, or to the best or worst in the last 5, 10 or 50 years. Where these are recurrent interests a computer can write them very effectively – and, a cynic would say, is more likely to report them accurately.

And the implications of this are immense, and were brought home to me by a casual conversation last week with the digital director of a leading B2B player. He is a Narrative Science triallist and his service is due to be launched during February. He noted both the very rapid need for updates in terms of market stats in his sector, as well as the fact that standard conventions around comparisons meant that these stories were ideal for computerized updates. These too were stories that needed to be squirted quickly onto mobile platforms – comment could follow later once everyone had the core narrative. He then alluded to the cost savings and the annual cost of journalists.  I walked away with the idea in mind that the critical path to saving B2B as advertising fails to return will be a massive change in the cost base of the industry. Ironically, efforts to create a new computerized journalism at Northeastern may well end in the employment of less journalists, though those who are needed will be needed at a much higher level of intellectual input.

Finally, a footnote on the conference. My panel of B2B players were all stars (Mason Slaine, Clare Hart and Scott Schulman) but outside of them I was very taken with David Liu, CEO of the Knot and the two founders of Gilt Groupe: B2C is certainly coming into its own. But the session that made me most thoughtful was an Interview with David Levin, the CEO of UBM. His intellectually rigorous approach to a careful acquisition and disposal programme was very admirable. But is the old niche-based B2B model still available? I see Thomson Reuters creating an increasingly cross-sectoral approach as they build bridges between legal, tax and regulatory on the one hand and financial services on the other. Instead of unrelated niches are we going back to cross-selling related sectors to get growth leverage? And if we are is the Informa/UBM/EMAP model beginning to creak as these players have too little in any one niche to effectively cross-sell? Depends how you define sector and niche, of course, but we could be in line for another age of Happy Families card game swaps, aka vertical sector consolidation.


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