By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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How a former Iowa newspaper’s name was hijacked to produce AI-generated clickbait

Clayton County, Iowa. Photo (cc) 2011 by Jsayre64.

The Clayton County Register was a respected Iowa newspaper. Founded in 1926, it lives on, having merged with The North Iowa Times in 2020. The new paper was named the Times-Register.

But that’s not the only way that the paper lives on. Kate Knibbs reports in Wired that the domain name, claytoncountyregister.com, is being repurposed to generate investment-oriented clickbait using artificial intelligence. Indeed, if you look at the Register’s homepage right now, you’ll find a gigantic headline, “New York Community Bancorp Faces Uphill Battle Amid Regional Banking Crisis,” accompanied by what is almost certainly an AI-generated image and a byline attributed to Emmanuel Ellerbee.

Ellerbee, Knibbs tells us, has some 30,845 articles to his credit, which is a level of output that even the greediest corporate newspaper owner would respect.

Although Knibbs doesn’t use the term “pink slime,” what she found would appear to fit: it’s garbage content, written under apparently fake bylines, taking advantage of a legacy newspaper’s brand and reputation in order to suck people in. Not that whoever is behind the faux Clayton County Register much cares about trying to lure the locals.

Knibbs begins her story by telling us about an investor named Tony Eastin who stumbled upon the Register while researching a pharmaceutical stock. Much of the story is devoted to how Eastin and his friend Sandeep Abraham tried to get to the bottom of this weird tale. They weren’t entirely successful, but they did find that a Linux server in Germany and a Polish website appeared to be involved. So, too, was a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” Knibbs writes:

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network which the Register’s old site is now part of was created with straightforward moneymaking goals, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same sort of tactics to push misinformation and propaganda into search results. “This is massively threatening,” Abraham says. “We want to raise some alarm bells.”

One of the dangers of the local news crisis is that bad actors can move in and create what appears to be local content that is really anything but. There’s Pink Slime 1.0, going back about a dozen years, which employed low-wage workers in far-off locations like the Philippines to write stories for zombie newspapers. There’s Pink Slime 2.0, in which mostly right-wing websites are given semi-plausible-sounding names like the North Boston News (!) to spread political propaganda. And now, increasingly, we’re seeing examples of Pink Slime 3.0, which adds AI to the mix.

Although these sites don’t represent much of a threat at the moment, that could change. After all, the infrastructure is being put into place.

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Students and AI weigh in on updating the SPJ’s Code of Ethics

Say hello to the new ethics committee. Photo (cc) 2012 by D J Shin.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics identifies four broad principles: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable. Each of them is fleshed out in some detail. You will note that the slippery concept of objectivity is not mentioned. These days most journalists believe, as I do, that truth-seeking, independence and fairness are the standards to which we should aspire, and that holding up objectivity as a goal only leads to endless debates over what that actually means.

On Wednesday evening, I asked students in my graduate ethics seminar to come up with a fifth principle. There are only eight students in the class, so I had them work in teams of two. I also asked the gremlins of artificial intelligence to weigh in. But first, here’s what my students came up with; I’ve edited them very lightly.

Listen to Others 

  • Be open to feedback
  • Promote cooperative relationships between journalists and the public
  • Be receptive to events in the world
  • Be open to a community that is not your own

Admit Limitations, Accept Your Own Bias

  • Don’t hide your own humanity
  • Accept that you can’t be objective
  • Accept you may not be able to follow all ethics codes all the time
  • Welcome criticism

Respect Relationships with Sources 

  • Don’t get so close with sources that personal feelings might get in the way of reporting
  • Protect them if they will be harmed for their sharing of the truth
  • Provide full disclosure to the sources of what the article is about and where it is being published

Create Spaces for Untold Stories 

One of the main priorities of a journalist should be to be prepared to fight for those who struggle. Journalists should:

  • Be righteous
  • Be brave
  • Create a sense of justice
  • Not be afraid to correct mistakes within their stories
  • Report on marginalized communities and use their personal resources to continue sharing information

I think these are terrific. The SPJ Code provides a pretty wide umbrella, so it’s not easy to come up with a fifth principle that isn’t already covered. But these proposals represent some fresh thinking. The “full disclosure” idea is important because when we’re interviewing people who aren’t accustomed to dealing with reporters, they may not understand the full implications of having their name, their quotes and in some cases their photos put before the public. And I love “Be brave.” That’s obviously true for, say, war correspondents. But journalists also have to deal with a rising wave of harassment and threats, both online and in real life. If they find that they’re unable to stand up to that, then they are not going to be able to serve their community. (They also shouldn’t be expected to put up with harassment, and newsrooms need to develop anti-harassment training and policies.)

Now … what about AI? While my students were working, I took the lazy way out and asked a couple of AI programs to come up with a fifth principle. Here’s the question I asked: “The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has four principles: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable. What would be a worthwhile fifth principle?” Once I finished playing, I deleted the answers and then asked them again so my students could watch everything unfold in real time. And here’s the answer from ChatGPT:

The addition of a fifth principle to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics could focus on promoting transparency. Here’s a suggestion:

“Foster Transparency: Journalists should strive to maintain transparency in their reporting processes, disclosing sources, conflicts of interest, and methodologies to enhance the credibility and trustworthiness of their work. By being transparent, journalists contribute to a more informed public and uphold the integrity of journalism.”

Not bad. Now, this is ChatGPT 3.5. You have to pay for the latest version, 4.0, and I’m obviously not going to do that. But I also asked the same question of Google Bard. As I understand it, the version that’s available to the public represents Google’s best tech. So here’s the answer:

There have been many suggestions for a fifth principle to the SPJ Code of Ethics, each reflecting evolving priorities and challenges in the journalism landscape. Here are some intriguing options to consider:

1. Foster Inclusivity and Diversity: This principle could emphasize the importance of representing marginalized voices, amplifying underrepresented perspectives, and ensuring newsrooms and reporting reflect the rich tapestry of society. It could challenge journalists to actively seek out diverse sources, challenge their own biases, and avoid harmful stereotypes.

2. Uphold Digital Responsibility: This principle would address the unique ethical challenges of the digital age, such as misinformation, disinformation, and privacy concerns. It could encourage journalists to verify information meticulously, source responsibly, and be transparent about online tools and methods.

3. Champion Civic Engagement: This principle could encourage journalists to go beyond informing the public and actively engage citizens in civic discourse. It could promote collaborative reporting, fact-checking initiatives, and platforms for audience participation, empowering the public to be informed participants in democracy.

4. Protect the Vulnerable: This principle could emphasize the need to protect vulnerable individuals and communities from exploitation or harm through reporting. It could call for sensitivity in covering sensitive topics, ensuring informed consent, and avoiding sensationalism that could endanger individuals.

5. Champion Transparency and Openness: This principle could focus on promoting transparency within the media itself, advocating for open access to information, and holding powerful institutions accountable. It could encourage self-reflection within journalism, critical examination of industry practices, and fostering a culture of ethical news consumption.

Ultimately, the “best” fifth principle is subjective and depends on the priorities and concerns of the journalism community at any given time. Each suggestion above addresses a critical aspect of ethical journalism in the 21st century, and ultimately, the decision lies with the SPJ and its members to determine which principle would best serve the mission of responsible and ethical journalism.

I hope this provides a helpful starting point for your exploration of this important topic!

This is pretty good. My students were meh about the ChatGPT answer but were impressed with Bard. If you’ve played with either of these programs, you know that the answer comes up almost instantaneously, which in itself is an impressive feat. I also think that though “Uphold Digital Responsibility” is fine as far as it goes, it should state explicitly whether or not AI is being used to help with reporting and writing.

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The Bard of AI

I haven’t played enough with the newest version of Google Bard to know whether it’s better than ChatGPT, but Bard has some advantages. You don’t have to log in — if you’re like most people, you’re already logged in through Google. The database is more up to date: It knows that Maura Healey is governor, whereas ChatGPT still thinks Charlie Baker is in the corner office. And it provides links. My misgivings about artificial intelligence aside, I’m impressed.

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Why Google’s AI search tool could harm news publishers

Photo (cc) 2010 by Robert Scoble

The question of whether Google should pay for news is about to get a lot more complicated. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that news publishers are freaking out over a new search tool powered by artificial intelligence that Google is working on.

The problem is that current Google search protocols drive a lot of traffic to news websites, and that could change. AI-powered search may very well keep users inside Google, thus denying clicks to the originators of the journalism that users are looking for. As an example, here is what The Atlantic believes it’s up against, according to the Journal’s Keach Hagey, Miles Kruppa and Alexandra Bruell:

About 40% of the magazine’s web traffic comes from Google searches, which turn up links that users click on. A task force at the Atlantic modeled what could happen if Google integrated AI into search. It found that 75% of the time, the AI-powered search would likely provide a full answer to a user’s query and the Atlantic’s site would miss out on traffic it otherwise would have gotten.

That 40% figure is typical for news publications. And though Google executives say that they intend to roll out AI search in such a way that journalism will continue to benefit, the Journal story makes it clear that’s nothing more than a vague promise at the moment.

The AI threat comes at a time when much of the media business is pushing for passage of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), which would require that Google and Facebook come to the bargaining table and reach a deal to compensate news organizations for repurposing their content. It’s a dicey proposition — Facebook has been moving away from news, and as the Journal story shows, publishers are dependent on traffic from Google even as they insist that Google ought to pay them.

Just this week, Brier Dudley of The Seattle Times wrote that the NewsGuild-CWA, the union that represents 26,000 employees at a number of news outlets, now supports the JCPA as the result of a possible tweak to the legislation that would be more explicit about protecting jobs. Brier also touted a recent study that claims the two tech giants should be paying news organizations some $12 billion a year.

Despite some bipartisan support for the JCPA, finding agreement within our dysfunctional Congress may prove impossible. And the rise of AI-based search isn’t going to make passage any easier.

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Sports Illustrated, caught running AI content and author profiles, tries to deflect blame

Time-Life co-founder Henry Luce in 1954. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Fake journalism produced by artificial intelligence is quickly devolving into a fiasco. The latest scandal involves Sports Illustrated, once a great magazine that was part of the Time-Life empire, now — well, who knows? It’s owned by something called The Arena Group, whose holdings also include TheStreet and Parade magazine (remember them?), and whose website says the company “combines powerful brands, in areas consumers are passionate about and delivers compelling experiences.” Corporate gobbledygook perfected except for the misplaced comma.

On Monday, Maggie Harrison of Futurism reported that SI had published articles generated by AI and — get this — included bylines and writer profiles that also had been generated by AI. Fake writers producing fake stories, in other words. All we need are fake readers. Harrison wrote: “After we reached out with questions to the magazine’s publisher, The Arena Group, all the AI-generated authors disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site without explanation.”

SI later posted a message on X/Twitter that almost literally says, No, we did not publish any AI content. What actually happened was that we published AI content. Huh? The message is worth reproducing in full:

We didn’t do it! The third-party content provider did it! Well, all right then. Poynter media analyst Tom Jones, himself a former sports writer, has a lot to say this morning. He does not seem impressed with The Arena Group’s attempt to deflect blame, writing, “The stories in question do not appear to be the traditional sports features we’re all familiar with when it comes to Sports Illustrated. The stories were more along the lines of product features and reviews. For example, one story from 2022 was about the best volleyballs. Not that it makes any difference.” No, it doesn’t.

The real threat coming from AI-produced fake journalism is that bottom-feeders with no interest in quality are going to load up on the stuff, thus harming the reputation of quality news organizations as well. NewsGuard recently conducted a study that found 49 content farms were using material that seemed to be “almost entirely written” by AI. Even in its shrunken form, Sports Illustrated is better than a content farm. Even so, Henry Luce is rolling over in his grave.

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Following up on how AI summarized a panel discussion

I got some great feedback on my post about using artificial intelligence to summarize a panel discussion. This is an issue I’ll continue to keep a close eye on and to experiment with. I want to surface a few comments I received and gather them together here.

  • From Ed Miller, editor of The Provincetown Independent: “I was there at the Radically Rural panel discussion, and I’m not sure I would call this summary ‘shockingly good,’ Dan. It is pretty good, but it completely misses the most important point in Victoria Bouloubasis’s presentation, which is that the Iowa poultry plant workers’ organizing efforts mostly failed to persuade local officials to help them.” OK, I guess I could have said “shockingly coherent” rather than “shockingly good.”
  • From Tom Johnson: “Any idea what it means to ’empower stereotypes’? Some species sure would help.” Johnson is referring to a section of the summary that says, “The story aimed to empower and defy stereotypes surrounding immigrant communities, contrasting with typical narratives of victimization.” I would agree that ChatGPT is no A.J. Liebling, but overall I thought we got the drift.
  • From Rebecca Rainey, writing on Threads: “Worth noting: The summaries are incredibly boring. I would much rather read your reporting and light analysis, which would tell me what matters most in the grand scheme of things.” My response is that such summaries would be more for internal newsroom use than for public consumption. The next step is to take such a summary and see if ChatGPT can transform it into a news story. I’ll be looking for a suitable event sometime in the near future.

Meanwhile, OpenAI, the company that rolled out ChatGPT a year ago, is in utter turmoil. Co-founder Sam Altman was fired over the weekend and is now moving to Microsoft. The speculation is that the OpenAI board wanted to proceed more slowly and was concerned that Altman was too dismissive of AI’s potential dangers. Presumably Microsoft will let him pick up the pace, so overall this is not good news.

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Could ChatGPT summarize an hour-long panel discussion? Here’s what I learned.

Be sure to see this follow-up.

Strictly as an experiment, I produced an AI-generated summary of a panel discussion that took place in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire. Titled “How’d They Do That? Groundbreaking Journalism,” the panel was moderated by Jack Rooney, managing editor for audience development at The Keene Sentinel, which co-sponsored the event along with the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship.

The hour-long panel featured Victoria Bouloubasis, a filmmaker who showed part of her Emmy-nominated documentary, “Rising Up in the Heartland: Latino Workers Fight for Pandemic Relief,” and discussed it; Samantha Hogan, an investigative reporter with The Maine Monitor, who talked about her reporting on the state’s public defense system for the indigent; and Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, who described his news organization’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting into the Backchannel scandal, which encompassed figures ranging from former Gov. Phil Bryant to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

A note on methodology: I took some real chances with this. I captured the audio using Otter.ai, a transcription service that uses artificial intelligence. Then I fed each of the three parts of the panel discussion into ChatGPT and asked it to produce 400-word summaries. I left out the audience Q&A that followed the panel. Let me stipulate for the record that I did not watch the video except for a few brief clips, and I skimmed quickly through the Otter transcript, which was 7,000 words long. I don’t recommend this as sound journalistic practice, but, as I said, I was experimenting. What I did not try to do was ask ChatGPT to generate a news story; I’ll try that another time.

What appears below, produced entirely by ChatGPT, looks shockingly good. I just hope that it’s an accurate and useful summary.

***

Victoria Bouloubasis, an Emmy-nominated journalist and filmmaker, based in Durham, North Carolina, shared insights into her work and a specific project during a panel discussion. Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Journalist’s Background: Victoria Bouloubasis is an experienced journalist with a focus on dispelling myths about the global South. Her career, primarily in community journalism, spans 15 years, emphasizing labor rights, healthcare, and language access in North Carolina’s agricultural and food industries. Growing up in the South, she covers labor issues, especially concerning first-generation Americans and their families in Latin America.
  • Coverage of Rural Communities: Bouloubasis delves into the complexities of covering rural communities, particularly in North Carolina, known for its prominence in pork and tobacco production. She highlights the evolving demographics, with a shift from primarily Mexican to more Central American and Indigenous communities. Language diversity adds complexity to her reporting, as many interviewed speak languages other than Spanish.
  • Project Overview: The discussed project, an Emmy-nominated piece for Univision, originally focused on long COVID’s impact on poultry plant workers. However, Bouloubasis shifted the narrative after discovering a grassroots organizing story among immigrant workers in Iowa. The story aimed to empower and defy stereotypes surrounding immigrant communities, contrasting with typical narratives of victimization.
  • Challenges Faced: The challenges in the project included last-minute changes to the story focus and navigating language barriers during interviews. Bouloubasis emphasizes the importance of terminology, noting the shifting dynamics of minority-majority populations in small towns. The story showcased the struggles of immigrant workers, demanding pandemic relief funds for essential workers who didn’t receive stimulus checks due to eligibility criteria.
  • Community Perspectives: Bouloubasis highlights the discomfort and confusion of local officials who couldn’t understand Spanish, providing a unique perspective on the challenges faced by non-English speakers. The mayor’s lack of understanding of the struggles faced by undocumented immigrants, particularly in receiving stimulus checks, became a focal point in the story.
  • Positive Outcomes: Despite the challenges, Bouloubasis expresses pride in the project’s recognition at the Emmys, emphasizing its hopeful and empowering narrative. The immigrant community in Iowa successfully distributed federal pandemic relief aid to meatpacking and farm workers, showcasing the impact of grassroots organizing.
  • Inspiration from the Community: Bouloubasis commends the courage of immigrant workers who put themselves at risk by publicly acknowledging their undocumented status. The project seeks to elevate their voices and bring attention to social determinants of health, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and understanding in journalism.

This summary captures Victoria Bouloubasis’s insights into her journalism career, the challenges of covering immigrant communities, and the impact of her Emmy-nominated project, which sheds light on the struggles and resilience of rural immigrant workers.

***

Samantha Hogan, investigative reporter with The Maine Monitor, shared insights into her work, focusing on Maine’s indigent public defense system. Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Reporter’s Background: Samantha Hogan, an investigative reporter, joined The Maine Monitor in 2019, specializing in court system reporting. Her work, supported by Report for America, delves into Maine’s troubled indigent public defense system.
  • Maine’s Demographics: Maine, with a predominantly white population, faces economic disparities rather than racial issues. The community includes both lifelong residents and seasonal “snowbirds.” Hogan decided to investigate how individuals unable to afford lawyers were represented in the state.
  • Indigent Public Defense System Issues: Hogan discovered issues within Maine’s indigent public defense system, where private defense lawyers were contracted without proper oversight. Unlike most states, Maine lacked a statewide public defender system, relying on contracts with private lawyers. Some lawyers had criminal convictions and professional misconduct violations.
  • Investigative Approach: A whistleblower alerted Hogan to problems in the indigent defense system. She initiated a data-driven investigation, utilizing public records requests and analyzing billing data. Hogan revealed instances of lawyers billing implausible hours and identified disciplinary issues among contracted lawyers.
  • Scandalous Cases and Red Flags: Hogan uncovered cases where lawyers with serious criminal convictions or professional misconduct allegations were contracted for public defense. The investigation raised red flags, such as lawyers billing excessive hours and serious ethical violations within the system.
  • Impact and Legal Consequences: The investigative report led to significant consequences, including a government watchdog verifying Hogan’s findings. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services faced a civil lawsuit, acknowledging negligent misrepresentation of billing by an attorney. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state, citing an ineffective public defense system.
  • Persistence and Impactful Journalism: Hogan’s relentless pursuit of public records, court filings, and data analysis turned anecdotal evidence into hard numbers. The investigative reporting became a pivotal factor in legal actions against the flawed public defense system. The ACLU lawsuit, citing Hogan’s work, puts the spotlight on the need for a functional public defense system in Maine. (1)
  • Ongoing Legal Battles: Hogan highlighted ongoing legal battles, including the ACLU lawsuit, indicating that the impact of investigative journalism extends beyond immediate results. The story, a four-year project, continues to evolve, emphasizing the importance of persistent reporting and its contribution to systemic change.

Samantha Hogan’s work exemplifies the power of investigative journalism in exposing systemic flaws, holding institutions accountable, and driving legal actions to address critical issues within the indigent public defense system in Maine.

***

Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, shared insights into the impactful investigative journalism that led to winning a Pulitzer Prize for the Backchannel investigation. Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Introduction: Adam expressed his gratitude to be on stage with fellow journalists and introduced Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today. Ganucheau oversees Mississippi’s largest newsroom, focusing on stories relevant to everyday Mississippians.
  • Mississippi’s Communities: Ganucheau highlighted the diversity of Mississippi’s communities, dispelling monolithic views. He emphasized the shared dreams and goals of Mississippians across different backgrounds, beliefs, and economic statuses. The challenge lies in providing equal access and opportunities for these dreams, especially in a state facing numerous problems.
  • Mississippi Today’s Role: Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2016, positions itself between everyday Mississippians and decision-makers. With a team of about 15, mostly Mississippi natives deeply connected to their community, the newsroom aims to bridge the gap by listening to people’s struggles, reporting on their concerns, and holding decision-makers accountable.
  • The Backchannel Investigation: The focus shifted to the Backchannel investigation, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2022. The investigation began with reporter Anna Wolfe’s exploration of poverty in Mississippi. She discovered that federal funds, intended for the state’s poorest residents, were being diverted to nonprofit programs with little accountability. (2)
  • Welfare Spending Anomalies: Wolfe delved into the anomalies in welfare spending, revealing that Mississippi approved less than 1% of applications for cash assistance. The investigation exposed a shift in funds from direct cash assistance to nonprofit initiatives with questionable accounting. Wolfe’s collaboration with the state auditor ultimately led to six arrests, including the welfare agency director.
  • Role of Former Governor: The investigation extended to the role of the former governor in redirecting federal funds and changing the philosophy behind poverty assistance programs. Wolfe spent years probing the governor’s involvement, culminating in a seven-part series titled “The Backchannel.”
  • Impactful Visuals and Reporting: Mississippi Today used charts and visuals to illustrate the impact of welfare spending changes over time. They scrutinized the former governor’s philosophy shift and its effects on assistance programs. The investigation revealed instances like wealthy individuals, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre, receiving welfare funds. (3)
  • Series Conclusion and Everyday Stories: The series aimed to provide accountability to state leaders while keeping the stories of everyday Mississippians at the forefront. Ganucheau highlighted the series’ conclusion in December 2022, where they circled back to the people who inspired the investigation. Everyday Mississippians, like Daniel Thomas, shared their experiences, expressing gratitude for the reporting but emphasizing the lack of tangible help.
  • Journalistic Mission: Ganucheau underscored that Mississippi Today’s mission is not driven by awards or notoriety but by a commitment to helping everyday people better understand their situations and hold decision-makers accountable.

The Backchannel investigation exemplifies the impactful role of investigative journalism in bringing systemic issues to light, holding those in power accountable, and giving a voice to those affected by government decisions.

Notes

  1. Did someone say “lawsuit”? When I saw that word in the ChatGPT summary, I decided I’d better check it out. The verdict? It’s true.

  2. Although I had already provided Otter, and thus ChatGPT, with the correct names of the panelists, ChatGPT was on its own with Anna Wolfe — and it spelled her name correctly.

  3. ChatGPT got Brett Favre’s name right, too. I did not, and I had to scroll back to the introduction to fix it.

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Using AI to tell a story about AI

Today at What Works, we have a story by one of our Northeastern graduate students, Ian Dartley, about Inside Arlington, a local news project powered by artificial intelligence. It’s no substitute for the human touch, and in fact the town already has a very good nonprofit news organization, YourArlington. But it’s an interesting experiment, and Ian does a great job of explaining it.

We also decided to have a little fun. The headline and the bullet points used to summarize Ian’s story were written by ChatGPT. So was the social media post we used to promote the story. Here’s how it looks on Threads:

How about ChatGPT finding that dog emoji? Good boy! I thought it was interesting that ChatGPT wrote fairly dull headlines and bullet points but suddenly developed a sense of fun when it came time to write a social media post.

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No, Arlington is not a ‘news desert’ — and the Globe should have done some checking

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Among the more venerable local news startups in the Boston area is YourArlington, which has been publishing in one form or another since 2006. Founded by veteran journalist Bob Sprague, the digital-only site in the past couple of years has gone nonprofit, added a governing board, and hired an editor, Judith Pfeffer, who succeeded Sprague when he retired during the summer. YourArlington offers fairly comprehensive coverage of the town and has paid freelancers. (Disclosure: Some of those paid freelancers have been Northeastern students, and I’ve been asked to speak at Sprague’s retirement party in November.)

So imagine my surprise when I read Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray’s story about Inside Arlington, a new project that is mainly produced by artificial intelligence: feed in the transcript of a select board meeting and publish what comes out the other side. Mainly I was surprised that Bray let cofounder Winston Chen get away with this whopper: “The town of Arlington, for practical purposes, is a news desert.” Bray offered no pushback, and there’s no mention of YourArlington. (Gannett merged the weekly Arlington Advocate with the Winchester Star about a year and a half ago and eliminated nearly all town-based coverage in favor of regional stories. There’s also a local Patch.)

Bray is properly skeptical, noting that several experiments in AI-generated stories have come to a bad end and that there’s no substitute for having a reporter on site who can ask follow-up questions. Still, there’s no question that AI news reporting is coming. Nieman Lab recently reported on a hyperlocal news organization in California that’s been giving AI a workout, although that organization — so far — has had the good sense not to publish the results.

But it’s disheartening to see the Globe take at face value the claim that Arlington lacks a local news organization. Scanning through YourArlington right now, I see a story about affordable housing that was posted today, a restaurant review, a story and photos from Town Day and a reception for the new town manager. Such coverage is the lifeblood of community journalism, and it can’t be replicated with AI — and I don’t see any of it at Inside Arlington.

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Talking media trust, local news and AI with the folks at ‘SouthCoast Matters’

Thank you to Paul Letendre, the host of “SouthCoast Matters,” and state Rep. Carol Doherty, D-Taunton, for having me on for two recent episodes. We talked about media trust, the challenges facing local news, artificial intelligence and more. “SouthCoast Matters” is recorded at Taunton Community Access and Media and is carried on cable stations in Taunton and the surrounding area. You can watch the two episodes below. (If you’re an email reader, you may have to click through for the web version of this post.)

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