Skip to content
Aug 6 / King Kaufman

Roy Peter Clark’s plea to save the game story from the robots

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark offered a rebuttal Tuesday to those—including this blogger—who have cheered the robot takeover of game stories. That is, those of us who like the idea that algorithm-generated text can do the grunt work of describing what happened on the field in what order, leaving human writers with time to write stories that are more original, less formulaic.

The usual argument against machine writing is that bosses will use it as an excuse to lay off writers and pocket the resulting profits. This is of course a possibility but I don’t think anyone will succeed by doing that. I should note that as I write this, Sports on Earth has just laid off most of its writing and editing staff, according to multiple reports. There’s no reason to believe SoE will be replacing them with algorithms—or that it’s likely to become a big success now.

But Clark is arguing a different point. He wants to keep human gamers for the sake of the reader. “Killing the game story would be a shame,” reads the headline on his post:

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post. His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

Here is Goff’s story.

Clark cites Red Smith’s famous lede describing Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, a lede that began, “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it.” He then credits Goff for leading his story in a similarly unconventional manner.

I would argue that Smith was not writing a game story. He was a columnist, not a beat writer, and, while his famous story had some game details, it was not a classic gamer. Similarly, Goff could afford to start his story, as Clark notes, “with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game” because he knew that any reader who cared about those details would already have learned them by the time the story was published.

So we may be talking semantics here. Goff’s piece is a game story, in the sense that it was the piece in the Washington Post that day that described the game, but it was as much a column, a collection of observations and opinion mixed in with quotes and description, as Red Smith’s piece from 1951. Clark acknowledges this:

The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing. What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective.

So Clark is arguing here not for the preservation of the standard Associated Press gamer—lede, context, important secondary detail, reverse chronological “running,” and the whole thing written through after a few minutes with quotes interspersed. He wants to save the more literate, literary, nuanced writing like Goff’s World Cup story, Smith’s Thomson column and many unforgettable pieces in between and since.

I think we can all agree with that. The question is probably more like: How much game coverage do we need humans to do? For one of the biggest sporting events in the world over a four-year period, sure, let’s have a fabulous writer like Goff write about the game, though he doesn’t necessarily need to bother with too many “details of the game” if they don’t fit what he wants to say.

But do we need that for a Tuesday night NBA game in Milwaukee, a Real Salt Lake-Portland Timbers tilt, a late-season Cubs-Phillies rainout makeup? I’d rather have writers with Goff’s talent doing more than recapping who scored at what minute.

What do you think?

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks for such a complete and fair summary and take on my essay. I think we both may be right. All the examples of great game stories I can think of come from writers who were covering big, big sporting events. When you have an Iron Bowl to determine who will play for the national championship, no one will send a robot to cover the game. There are exceptions to this of course, but when they happen, we’ll send the robot home and send a human to write a feature on the amazing thing that happened. Cheers.