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News / Sports / Prep Sports

Tim Martinez: You won’t find AI covering our local sports

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: August 29, 2023, 9:00pm

I was recently reminded of a phone conversation I had years ago while working at a newspaper in Oregon.

I was working the night shift, collecting results of games played in the area. And I took a call from one team manager. It went like this.

Caller: “Hi. I’m calling in the result of a basketball game?”

Me: “OK, great. What was the final score?”

Caller: “48 to 42.”

Me: “Who had 48?”

Caller: “We did.”

Me: “And are you?”

Caller: “Jenny.”

Me: “Jenny, could you hold on for a minute?”

POUND. POUND. POUND. That was me banging my head on my desk.

That memory was sparked by a recent report of a high school football game published the Columbus Dispatch of Columbus, Ohio. It read as follows:

“Two area high schools played a football game on Friday night with one emerging victorious 21-12.

“The game was tied going into the opening kickoff but that would soon change when one team would later score.

“Both teams hope to learn from this game as they are back in action next Friday night against other opponents.”

That report was brought to you by artificial intelligence or AI.

With many newspapers across the country cutting back on staff, many have turned to AI as a way to report news. This season, the Columbus Dispatch, as a well as other newspapers owned by Gannett, started using AI to report on high school football.

And the results have been, well, terrible.

How it works is the Dispatch partners with an online service that allows fans in the stands to report scores of games in real time. The problem is that this service often only provides the score and perhaps the score by quarters.

And in this instance, the person reporting the score forgot to enter the name of the teams playing. But that didn’t stop the Dispatch’s AI tool from going to work with all available information.

But even when teams are correctly identified and scores are accurately posted, the stories that are being AI-created content are not a whole lot better.

These AI-created stories have been popping up not just in the Dispatch but other Gannett publications around the country.

And they have been openly mocked across the country.

So, not too surprisingly, a Gannett spokesperson released this statement to Axios this week: “This local AI sports effort is being paused. In addition to adding hundreds of reporting jobs across the country, we are experimenting with automation and AI to build tools for our journalists and add content for our readers. We are continually evaluating vendors as we refine processes to ensure all the news and information we provide meets the highest journalistic standards.”

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The problem with this AI experiment is that the AI content was supposed to be verified by an actual human before publication. But with staffing reductions, the number of people working in newsrooms on Friday nights or weekends has dissolved to zero for many publications.

But that is not the case at The Columbian.

This Friday night, the first of the high school football season, our entire five-person sports staff will be busy at work, four of whom will be out in the field reporting on football games, talking to the actual participants, while capturing photos and video. We will also have a team of correspondents out at games, and we’ll be coordinating with coaches to get details of games that are not played locally. That will be the plan for most Friday nights this fall.

Now, because of press deadlines and production resources, most of Friday night’s football coverage will not appear in the Weekend print edition of The Columbian that comes out on Saturday. However, you can find all of it on Columbian.com or 360preps.com.

So if you value quality local reporting — by actual blood-and-flesh reporters — I encourage you to get a digital subscription to Columbian.com. Unlimited digital access costs only $9.99 a month.

Quality local journalism is not free, and I think you’ll find it’s well worth the value.

The alternative is game reports that include such golden nuggets as “The game was tied going into the opening kickoff.”

Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4538, tim.martinez@columbian.com or follow his handle @360TMart on Twitter and Instagram.

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