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Sportswriting 2001

A new computer program makes some scribes squirm

The Chariton Newspapers, which publish The Leader on Tuesdays and The Herald-Patriot on Thursdays in Chariton, Iowa, have a circulation of 3,500. The papers report on all the athletic teams in two school districts and have an editorial staff of two, a writer, and an editor, Keith Isley. Isley considers himself a traditionalist and a perfectionist, but during the fall and winter it is hard to be either when the Chariton High School Chargers, the Chariton Middle School Ponies and the Russell Community School Trojans play their games at roughly the same time.

"I was running myself ragged trying to cover these teams and needed some help desperately," Isley says.

He tried using high school stringers, but his penchant for perfection and their lack of it forced him to look for other options. There seemed to be only one, though, and it made the traditional journalist in him cringe.

"I received a flier in the mail for a computer program called SportsWriter by a company called Zybrainics," says Isley. "I had my reservations, but it has performed beyond my wildest expectations."

Invented by Roger Helms, 42, a self-taught computer programmer and freelance writer who lives in Rochester, Minn., SportsWriter gives anyone using it the ability to report on high school level sporting events. One has only to plug in a game's statistics and quotes from coaches, and the computer will come up with a story by analyzing the data and matching it with relevant sports terms and phrases from a preprogrammed list.

Through unusual cooperation between coaches and the media, papers can report on a game without sending a reporter to it. Before the football and basketball seasons begin, Isley gives predated summary sheets to the coaches of all the teams in the Chariton and Russell school districts. After each game, a coach notes individual and team stats and includes comments about the players. He leaves the completed form at his school for the newspaper to pick up.

Don Arends, coach of the Chariton High School basketball team, deems the system a success. "I love it, mainly because sometimes, when reporters walk into the locker room right after the game, we [coaches] say things we really don't mean," he says. "Now I can sit down, think and say exactly what I want."

The program writes stories that are informative, if not exactly colorful. Here's SportsWriter's lead for a boys' basketball game played on Dec. 7 between Chariton and Albia: "The Chariton varsity Chargers downed the archrival Albia Blue Demons 73-63 in boys' South Central Conference basketball at home Tuesday night, evading an early fourth-quarter charge by the Blue Demons."

Helms invented the program because he appreciates strong sports reporting, and having worked at three small Missouri newspapers, he knows how hard it is for such papers to afford sportswriters. He thought the program would improve small newspapers' sports coverage. Isley thinks it has. "Our readers have given us compliments, but we haven't really told everyone we're using a computer," he says. "I think at first the reaction might have been negative. But since we have improved, I think they would appreciate it."

Currently 80 newspapers, mostly in the Midwest, are using Helms's program. Purists reject SportsWriter, arguing that it doesn't rely on authentic reporting. And there are concerns that the program will make small-town sportswriters unnecessary. With limited budgets some publications could find ii makes sense to replace a full-time writer with a computer program that costs around $100.

"Some say it isn't real journalism," Helms reflects, "but the people who have been involved understand it can't replace a real sportswriter." Moreover, Helms urges papers to indicate which stories have been written by SportsWriter.

Isley agrees that the program could never go beyond the level of a good high school journalist or a cub sportswriter, but for help in meeting deadlines, he knows a sportswriting computer is valuable. "At this level, after the lead, a lot of game stories are repetitive," he says. "This program eliminates the need for me to write dozens of game stories, when my time could be spent on something more productive."