How Technology Shrunk the Workforce in One Newspaper

The Argus-Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been running a series of articles this week titled Robot Week stories: How technology is changing the workforce. It covers some common topics like fast food jobs and medicine while considering the common skepticism that a jobs revolution is not happening.

One piece is an interview with Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, who opined that South Dakota is somewhat atypical but still faces automation performing more jobs.

Agricultural technology is important in South Dakota. Farmers appreciate milking automation that frees them from having to tend to the cows every 12 hours. Plus the increased efficiency is remarkable: a state Agriculture Secretary said his father once employed 45 people and now the farm is bigger with more stock and operates with eight workers because of technology.

The article on publishing technology struck home because I worked in the field for some years while it was changing from paper layout to pages produced entirely on machines. What’s eye-catching here is how the newspaper workforce shrunk from 310 workers to 140 over a period of years, like many other businesses where greater efficiency brought by technology has meant that fewer people were needed to do the work.

It’s another reminder that America shouldn’t continue importing low-skilled foreigners via immigration. Oxford researchers have estimated that nearly half of US jobs are susceptible to automation by 2033, and all evidence indicates that smart machines are creating substantial job loss now and the trend is partially responsible for the jobless recovery.

Computer software journalists are coming after my job, By Steve Young, Argus-Leader, August 13, 2015

Not so many years ago, before the Internet encroached into the journalism industry, I came to work each day here at the Argus Leader with 310 other people.

People laying out the news pages. People working the phones and trying to sell subscriptions. People editing copy and making sure we wrote and spelled correctly. People who took a newspaper out to your house when the delivery boy or girl failed you.

It just doesn’t seem like it was all that many years ago. Yet here I am still coming to work at the Argus Leader every day, but now there are only 140 walking in the door with me.

Where did all the others go?

The layout people work in a centralized hub in Des Moines, Iowa, now. The copy editors? We edit our own copy (and we can debate how well we do that later). The telemarketers working the phones trying to drum up subscriptions? Put out of a job by the Do Not Call mandate.

It’s bigger than that, of course. The evolution of the Internet, social media and digital competition has challenged the business models for newspapers to the point that we’re not called newspapers anymore. We’re called media companies. We have websites. We write stories, but we also do videos and podcasts.

It’s a transition that has caught me late in my career, a wave of change I fully intend to embrace and ride into retirement if I can. That is, if I can hold off my next big challenge – the software journalist.

That’s right. In the course of reporting this week on automation, technology and how it all might affect our human workforce needs here in South Dakota in the future, I’ve learned there are computers now that write stories.

In 2010, Northwestern University researchers founded a new company, Narrative Science Inc., and commercialized a powerful artificial intelligence technology it named “Quill.” It can analyze reams of data and then write sports, business and political stories so well that media companies like Forbes use it to produce automated stories.

In fact, California author Martin Ford wrote in his book, “Rise of the Robots,” that Narrative Science’s software can generate a news story approximately every 30 seconds, and that many are published on widely known websites that prefer not to acknowledge their use of the service.

Ford wrote that at a 2011 industry conference, Narrative Science co-founder Kristian Hammond was asked to predict the percentage of news articles that would be written algorithmically within the next 15 years. Hammond’s answer? Over 90 percent.

As part of my series this week, we were going to see if we could enlist the company in a competition between myself, the human, and the Quill technology. We weren’t able to make that happen.

Thank goodness.

But here’s my real fear. The Quill technology highlights the extent to which jobs that once were the exclusive province of college-educated people like myself now are vulnerable to automation.

Am I worried? Not really, not for me at least. Do I see how technology and automation have impacted my workplace over the last 10, 15 years? Clearly.

I don’t know how many people I’ll walk through the door with each morning next week or next month or next year. I just know the numbers are dwindling.

And that there’s some algorithm out there that wants my job.

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