In the cramped back room of the weekly Monroe City News sits a journalist's worst nightmare: a computer that writes by itself.
The 1,600-circulation publication was the first in the country to use software known as SportsWriter. Eighty-two other newspapers, most of them small-town weeklies, have since bought into an idea that has journalists wondering if their computers one day may do their jobs.
In 1991, publisher Mike Sell was desperate to squeeze more high school sports coverage into the paper but couldn't afford to hire another writer. The answer came from Roger Helms, who once worked for Sell in this northeast Missouri town about 20 miles west of Hannibal.
A veteran of weekly papers, Helms had focused his attention on computer programming. He was trying to come up with software that would teach high school journalists how to write sports. What developed went a step further.
"I was asking myself, `How do you think when you write a sports story?' So I just started to program some of that thinking process into the computer," said Helms, 42, now owner of Zybrainics Software of Rochester, Minn. "Eventually, I had sort of taught the computer how to write."
The result was SportsWriter, a software package that writes football and basketball game stories using information provided by coaches.
Helms sent letters advertising the program to 4,000 weekly papers nationwide. Sell was the first buyer. Nine weekly and two daily papers in Missouri ended up buying the program, though Helms said the dailies never used it.
"I used to spend a whole day writing that stuff," said Sell, who left Monroe City six months ago to become advertising director for the Missouri Press Association in Columbia. "Once I got a hold of that program, I knocked it down to about 2 1/2 hours."
But Bill Miller, editor of the twice-weekly Washington Missourian, doesn't buy it.
"I would rather see a live brain working on (a story) rather than a computer," he said. "I think people after a while would look upon it and say: `Why read it? It's so routine."'
The program has drawn widespread attention from journalists, particularly after a front-page Wall Street Journal article March 29.
Writing teacher Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said a computer-generated story relies too much on information from the source. And, he said, creativity goes out the window.
"A finite number of rules generate an infinite number of sentences, so language use is essentially creative," he said. "It is that freshness that I think appeals to human beings."
Sell said many journalists simply don't like the idea of a computer being able to do their jobs.
"People panic and say a computer might replace people," he said. …