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Maybe a computer reading the news isn’t the best idea

I noticed something I never have when reading a story at the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun today. There was an audio icon and click to listen in the corner of the story.

I know Springfield has been experimenting with editors doing daily headlines via video. So I thought, maybe they’re having reporters read their stories. That’s strange but kind of cool.

It is the story, read aloud, which you download or listen to. But it wasn’t the reporter, it was a computer. And it was kind of creepy.

When we got our very first Windows computer, I was about 10. And there was this program that would read your text in whatever computer voice you chose. It would try to have the right inflection, but mostly it was just humorous and in some instances creepy. It amused my friends and I plenty as we crank called other friends. (Come on, this was middle school! And soundboards hadn’t been invented yet.)

That is kind of how I felt listening to the story. It was very creepy to me, and disjointed. It stumbled over words and slowed down the flow when it came to numbers and dates.

This service is apparently offered by Newsworthy Audio, which offers its services to other newspapers as well. I couldn’t find a list, but Springfield’s sister paper the Dayton Daily News has the same icon on its stories. Not sure if all Cox papers do or if it’s an Ohio thing, but it’s on some stories at Cox’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, including this one, which I will use as an example here.

[audio:http://merandawrites.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/schoolsgarden_newsaudio.mp3]

Schools plant gardens to sprout healthy eaters

By ELIZABETH LEE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On the kind of sunny, clear fall afternoon that torments children cooped up in classrooms, a group of fifth-graders is living every kid’s dream.

They’re roaming around a courtyard, soaking up the sun and talking with friends. And their teacher couldn’t be happier. As first one, then another runs up to her with an assignment, Marsha Cherichel checks their work and urges them to plug away at the solution.

The right answer to this math word problem, which involves multiplication, division and decimals, means more than just getting a check mark on a paper. It means within a few weeks, the students will harvest radishes from the garden they’re designing, getting their first taste of one of the hottest trends in hands-on education.

School gardens are enjoying a revival energized by the local food movement and concern over childhood obesity. Growing fruits and vegetables, the thinking goes, will teach science, math, even literature — and, garden organizers hope, a lifetime of healthier eating habits.

… (you get the idea)

I thought, maybe a straight news story would be better. But after jumping over some annoying registration walls, I found one and clicked the audio link and was disappointed to find it’s almost as bad.

I think it’s a good idea in theory, to be able to listen to the newspaper instead of having to sit down and actively read it. Busy lifestyles and all. But as a writer, I cringe at the idea of my words being mangled and interpreted by a computer reading it the way the stories I clicked on were. I’d rather not, thank you. I just don’t see how a reader, or in this case listener, could stand more than 10 seconds of listening. It was painful.

I don’t know if there will ever be a replacement for a real human reading, at least not without a lot of hand-holding and tweaking by audio engineers. Whether it’s audio books or audio stories (or broadcast even), I find it hard to believe these on-the-fly computer-generated audio stories could gain any kind of traction or regular listeners. Perhaps after a while you are able to parse it out and listen beyond the horrible and annoying pronunciation to the stories themselves. I just don’t see how. And again, if I could reiterate, as a writer AND reader, I cringed while listening to these.

2 Responses to “Maybe a computer reading the news isn’t the best idea”

  1. Patrick Beeson Says:

    Zombies!

  2. Charlie VIck Says:

    That is truly scary. Jeez, AJC? What got into you? They are trying all kinds of new stuff, some of it very good, and some of it apparently along the lines of ‘scary campfire tales with Creepy Computer Voice.’