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One Sportswriter, no attitude.

You're an editor at a small weekly newspaper, its late Friday night, and you want to go home. Unfortunately, every coach of every sports team in the area has dropped off game results that need to be shaped into stories. If only....

Enter Sportswriter, a $99 computer program that sacrifices itself to the often tedious task of writing about local sports events. Explains creator Roger Helms, 41, a former newspaper reporter and self-taught computer programmer: "First-hand reporting is an art form, but write-ups from a form filled out by a coach are more of a rote process.... After you've been writing them for long enough, they come down to something of a formula."

Realizing that many smaller papers don't have reporters to send to every sports event and instead rely on coaches to report results, Helms developed Macintosh software to make the process easier for basketball and football games. He's presently upgrading both programs to include more sports phrases and developing volleyball, baseball and softball versions.

Helms says he was inspired after noticing that the quality of sports coverage at weekly papers was wildly uneven. "Some were very good; some they'd forget to put in the final score," he says. "But how can someone make their [coverage] better if they've got limited expertise on their staff?"

Coaches still must act as reporters and fill out standard forms, but Sports-writer takes over the writing, Helms says. In less than a minute, the program combines the coach's written observations, quotes" and statistics to produce a classic pyramid-style story. For example, if the coach submits a form stating that Chuck Jones of Central City High sank two free throws with three seconds left for the win after Central had fallen behind, the program might deliver the lead, "The Central City Tigers rallied to nip the Johnson City Panthers in boy's basketball Friday at home."

Sports lend themselves to computers, Helms says, because they're "very mathematical, and math is what computers are good at." There are also a limited number of variables in sports, he says, unlike an event such as a city council meeting. "Once you move away from highly structured stories like sports, it would no longer be time efficient," he says.

Michael Sell, the publisher of the 23,000-circulation weekly Monroe City News in Missouri who hired Helms as a reporter about 10 years ago, says the inventor used to "sit here until the wee hours of the morning" writing sports stories from forms. "He'd always say there ought to be a way of writing a computer program to do this," Sell recalls.

Today, Sell owns copies of both of Helms' programs. The City News covers two school systems, the publisher says, with each team at each school playing two games a week, for a total of as many as 18 events--"a sportswriter's nightmare." Using Sportswriter, Sell says it takes about two hours each week to write stories about all of the games. And the programs include plenty of names, an important feature in a small town where names are news. "Even if a player only makes one basket in the first minute of the game, the computer will put that person in," he says.

Helms says at least 70 newspapers--mostly weeklies with less than 7,500 circulation--have purchased Sportswriter since he introduced it last year. "It's not intended to replace a person," insists the programmer, who says he did receive some anonymous letters initially from journalists who accused him of trying to do just that. "But the program can do a better job than someone who really doesn't know how to write sports," which might be the case at papers that have only a few staffers.

Perhaps more important, says Sell, editors no longer have to grapple with reporters' egos. "If you don't like the lead," he notes, "you push a button and the computer changes it." Suzan Revah, Is an AJR news aide.
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Title Annotation:Sportswriter software package
Author:Revah, Suzan
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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