I’ll admit that I was more than a little skeptical when the Knight Foundation announced last week that it would award $3 million in grants to help local news organizations use artificial intelligence. My first reaction was that dousing the cash with gasoline and tossing a match would be just as effective.
But then I started thinking about how AI has enhanced my own work as a journalist. For instance, just a few years ago I had two unappetizing choices after I recorded an interview: transcribing it myself or sending it out to an actual human being to do the work at considerable expense. Now I use an automated system, based on AI, that does a decent job at a fraction of the cost.
Or consider Google, whose search engine makes use of AI. At one time, I’d have to travel to Beacon Hill if I wanted to look up state and local campaign finance records — and then pore through them by hand, taking notes or making photocopies as long as the quarters held out. These days I can search for “Massachusetts campaign finance reports” and have what I need in a few seconds.
Given that local journalism is in crisis, what’s not to like about the idea of helping community news organizations develop the tools they need to automate more of what they do?
Well, a few things, in fact.
Foremost among the downsides is the use of AI to produce robot-written news stories. Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.
Patrick White, a journalism professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, sounded this unrealistically hopeful note in a piece for The Conversation about a year ago: “Artificial intelligence is not there to replace journalists or eliminate jobs.” According to one estimate cited by White, AI would have only a minimal effect on newsroom employment and would “reorient editors and journalists towards value-added content: long-form journalism, feature interviews, analysis, data-driven journalism and investigative journalism.”
Uh, Professor White, let me introduce you to the two most bottom line-obsessed newspaper publishers in the United States — Alden Global Capital and Gannett. If they could, they’d unleash the algorithms to cover everything up to and including city council meetings, mayoral speeches and development proposals. And if they could figure out how to program the robots to write human-interest stories and investigative reports, well, they’d do that too.
Another danger AI poses is that it can track scrolling and clicking patterns to personalize a news report. Over time, for instance, your Boston Globe would look different from mine. Remember the “Daily Me,” an early experiment in individualized news popularized by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte? That didn’t quite come to pass. But it’s becoming increasingly feasible, and it represents one more step away from a common culture and a common set of facts, potentially adding another layer to the polarization that’s tearing us apart.
“Personalization of news … puts the public record at risk,” according to a report published in 2017 by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “When everyone sees a different version of a story, there is no authoritative version to cite. The internet has also made it possible to remove content from the web, which may not be archived anywhere. There is no guarantee that what you see will be what everyone sees — or that it will be there in the future.”
Of course, AI has also made journalism better — and not just for transcribing interviews or Googling public records. As the Tow Center report also points out, AI makes it possible for investigative reporters to sift through thousands of records to find patterns, instances of wrongdoing or trends.
The Knight Foundation, in its press release announcing the grant, held out the promise that AI could reduce costs on the business side of news organizations — a crucial goal given how financially strapped most of them are. The $3 million will go to The Associated Press, Columbia University, the NYC Media Lab and the Partnership on AI. Under the terms of the grant, the four organizations will work together on projects such as training local journalists, developing revenue strategies and studying the ethical use of AI. It all sounds eminently worthy.
But there are always unintended consequences. The highly skilled people whom I used to pay to transcribe my interviews no longer have those jobs. High school students who might have gotten an opportunity to write up the exploits of their sports teams for a few bucks have been deprived of a chance at an early connection with news — an experience that might have turned them into paying customers or even journalists when they got older.
And local news, much of which is already produced at distant outposts, some of them overseas, is about to become that much more impersonal and removed from the communities they serve.