MarketBrief Shows Media's Future: More Automation, Fewer People

Last Updated Aug 24, 2011 10:28 AM EDT

The future of news is increasingly automated. Just look at a company called MarketBrief, which translates SEC documents into template-driven reports. The company makes them available on its site and also hopes to syndicate them to other publishers.

This type of work used to employ a number of writers. It will do so less often in the future, because it's cheaper to do this automatically than to keep people on staff. Welcome to the Great Flipping Point in media. As consumers are less willing to spend money, companies will find less expensive ways to create and distribute writing, video, and audio... and technology increasingly makes it possible.

Where's the translate legalese button?
Co-founder Jason Zucchetto says that the current idea came from the company's original idea of creating a better alternative to Edgar, the SEC's system for retrieving corporate filings. "People were still emailing us saying we have no idea what this [wording] means," he says. "How can we transform the filings into plain English and easier-to-read articles?"

The answer will make a lot of reporters howl in pain. The three people at MarketBrief, working out of a Mountain View, Calif., townhouse, coded a template system. Filings of a single type -- say a Form 4, which documents stock trades by officers, directors, and other insiders â€" have the same type of information. MarketBrief's system pulls the company specifics out of a given form and then places them into the appropriate spots in an explanatory template. It's like financial MadLibs, only the content and the context fit together.

Fill in the blanks
For many types of forms, the time from getting the data from a direct SEC feed to generating a report is a few seconds. Some types of forms, like an 8-K current report, are more complex and require a manual review of the results. But even that process only takes a few minutes, according to Zucchetto. "We're basically double-checking our software," he says. "It will ask us a bunch of questions and say, 'Does this look correct?'"

Aside from speed, MarketBrief has another major advantage over human reporters: the ability to correlate huge amounts of data. A report of insider trading can comb through previous reports for the same company and the same person to provide history of other possibly related trading activity. This is work that could easily take a human an hour or two.

Automated systems can also add reporting that no one can afford to undertake. Zucchetto says that by following the findings, his company covers small-cap companies that no one else does. Just today, for example, MarketBrief had a report on marketing analysis firm eDataSource (Email Data Source) having raised $552,167 out of a $1 million private offering. Who else other than a computer has the time -- or attention -- to chase such information down?

Coming to a job near you
Although an isolated company, what you see happening with MarketBrief will occur in other parts of the media -- and in other industries. Look at contract manufacturer Foxconn, with its recent history of elevated suicide rates and worker dissatisfaction in China; it's now implementing robotic systems to eliminate some workers. The company clearly wants to save money, but there's another aspect, as someone at the Economist smartly noted: robots don't complain, kill themselves or demand higher wages.

Anyone in the media who thought automation and outsourcing couldn't possibly affect them hasn't been paying attention. The powers of "good enough" and "cheap" combine to make an irresistible combination for many companies. Those that still want to do things the old way are at an economic disadvantage.

Like Jeff Jarvis, I think we're not having a jobless recovery, but a jobless future:
Technology and related trends, including globalization, lead to efficiency in companies and sectors. Transparent markets lead to lower prices. Digital abundance leads to both.
Any of that can apply to media.

Jarvis is fond of calling for entrepreneurship, but I think that is wishful thinking. The inefficiencies being wrung out of the industry eliminates the need for much of the work that's kept some journalists gainfully employed. Some might become micro-publishers, but relatively few will make enough money to survive, let alone thrive; there's only so much public attention available. The industry isn't dead, but many of those in it might as well be professionally.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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