The other day in the newsroom, a few of us began speculating about the future of journalism, and how artificial intelligence (AI) could increasingly replace flesh-and-blood writers such as, well, us.
One colleague, who’s researched the concept in depth, pointed out that many articles on corporate earnings and sports scores are already generated by “robot reporters.” According to The New York Times, Bloomberg News relies on AI to crank out about one third of its content. The Associated Press also uses automated technology for minor league and college sports stories, as well as for earnings coverage.
As I started to panic about my job prospects, the conversation veered into realms well beyond the grasp of my 4 p.m. brain — technological advances that would reconfigure daily life, financial disruptions that would restructure the global economy, climate changes that would radically alter the planet. Drones and driverless cars were the future, my coworkers said, and space colonization was a must.
The Star Trek scenarios did little to reassure me; the horizon beyond the moon looked as dismal as the one on an earth torn by conflict, greed and indifference. With gun violence ravaging our city, atrocities raging abroad, scandal and secularization emptying the pews, I felt small and utterly insignificant.
The stories I covered — the Catholic ministries and outreaches, the parish events, the faithful who quietly serve the Lord and his people — seemed as nothing in the face of such evil. Even if a robot ended up taking over my job, would anyone care enough to read about a handful of passing moments in a church whose future (at least in the short-term) seemed dim?
Sensing my discouragement, my editor called me into his office after the futuristic discussion had ended. Without a word, he pointed to a large, yellowed sheet of newsprint carefully laid across his desk: an issue of The Catholic Times of Philadelphia, dated November 17, 1894.
I studied the headlines, which were set in quaint fonts and flanked by pen-and-ink illustrations. A group of ladies had enjoyed an evening of praying the rosary and drinking tea at the home of an affluent church benefactor. Various couples had wedded in parishes throughout the city, each bride beautiful, each union blessed. A priest had written a new book and would present a lecture on his findings for those interested. Funeral directors, coal companies and men’s tailors offered their services at prices that would buy little more than a coffee these days. And Pope Leo XIII, then pontiff, patiently worked to bring an ancient church into dialogue with a modern world, amid turbulent conditions that in many ways mirrored those faced by his successor, Pope Francis.
“This is why we do this work,” my editor said. “We take up the task where those who went before us left off, and we do our part until the next generation takes over from us.”
As I pondered both the antique newsprint and his advice, I found myself less worried about robot reporters, declining readership and the eternal consequences of my 700-word articles on life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Rather, I realized that my primary assignment is the same as that shared by every believer: to witness to the love and the truth of Jesus Christ, journeying on a path that leads from history into heaven.
That’s a story we are all called to write — sometimes with words, sometimes with our very blood through martyrdom, and more often with everyday and, to the common eye, “unremarkable” acts of trust in God and service in his name.
The Catechism describes such witness as “a transmission of faith in words and deeds” (CCC, 2472) — the heart-to-heart network that has stretched through centuries, carrying a message of radical joy that will last forever.
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