A dark secret about how The Gazette operates will soon become known to the masses. In a piece to be published this Saturday, sports editor Stu Cowan will finally reveal publicly that columns signed by veteran hockey writer Red Fisher have been generated automatically by a sophisticated computer algorithm ever since the columnist died of natural causes six years ago.
The software, used after the odd Habs home game, generates a Red Fisher-style column using statistical data from the boxscore, as well as some human-entered information to spice it up. It has a database of hundreds of old Red Fisher columns and has learned his way of writing quite well. It uses expressions like:
- “Raise your hand if…”
- “There was a lot to like about…”
- “Know something?”
- “We’re talking about a team who went into the game…”
- “What else can you say about a team that…”
- “Particularly on a night when…”
- “The rest you know.”
Actually, that last one was cut from the database after a few weeks when it appeared at the end of virtually every column.
The program is fast, though not perfect. The text needs a lot of editing once it’s created, and even now it needs the approval of a senior editor before it gets published.
A similar program puts together the weekly Red Line notebook, taking NHL briefs and “Fisherizing” them.
Fisher’s other function, writing obits for expiring Canadiens greats, is handled mostly by taking elements from old columns and tacking on a paragraph or two about how and when the person died.
Even though it has been wildly successful, upper management at Canwest ordered an immediate halt to the program once they learned about it two days ago. The Gazette decided the best way to deal with the sudden disappearance of a star columnist is to just come clean about what was going on.
I won’t get too much into the ethics of the program. A separate investigation is under way on how this could have gone on for so long, and more details about that will be revealed on Saturday, and no doubt huge amounts of ink will be spilled about this afterward. But on a sheer technical basis, you have to admit it’s pretty impressive.
They’re talking about replacing journalists with robots. This is an example of the first wave of that battle.