Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Now This Is a Content Mill: Narrative Science Raises $6 Million for Human-Free Stories

Demand Media and its peers pay lots of writers small sums in order to generate lots and lots of content, with the help of computers. But you can do it for even less if you eliminate the writers altogether.

That’s the premise behind Narrative Science, a start-up that sells technology that “generates news stories, industry reports, headlines and more–at scale and without human authoring or editing.”

And the pitch seems to be effective: It’s allowed the company to raise $6 million in a round led by Battery Ventures that closed this week.

The Evanston, Ill.-based company, which started up last year, is led by former DoubleClick executive Stuart Frankel, with Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, two Northwestern University computer science professors. Other investors include Frankel’s former boss David Rosenblatt, who stuck around Google for a bit after it bought the online ad company, and who now advises companies like Twitter, where he sits on the board.

Frankel and Hammond worked on an earlier incarnation of the idea at Northwestern, where they helped produce Stats Monkey, a program that could automatically create passable sports stories based solely on game data. And StatSheet, a North Carolina start-up, wants to use the same premise to fuel a network of sports sites.

But Narrative Science has ambitions bigger than box scores. The company wants to use structured data sets to produce a wide range of stories. Many of which you probably wouldn’t identify as stories (“narrative” is an intentionally broad term), and many of which you’ll never see anyway, because they’re behind a paywall of some sort. Think of financial reports, real estate write-ups, etc.

I suppose some people might get queasy about the idea of robot writers, but I think it makes perfect sense. There’s lots of content-making that machines can and should do much faster than humans, and at least as effectively.

Meanwhile, the push to produce more copy for less has been underway for a long time, even for publishers that don’t get labeled “content farms“–Reuters moved some of its financial-reporting resources to India years ago, and you never hear a peep about that.

The trick for content makers like myself is to find work that only content makers like myself can do–work where human qualities like experience, judgment and creativity get rewarded. And if we can’t do that, we ought to be doing something else, anyway.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle