I don’t want to come off as a total Luddite when it comes to artificial intelligence and journalism. Well, OK, maybe I do. Because even though I have no problem with using AI for certain mindless, repetitive tasks, such as transcribing interviews and finding patterns in public records, I think we need to be cautious about using such tools to actually produce journalism — whether it be reports about real estate transactions (thus missing the opportunity to dig more deeply) or stories about high school sports. With that in mind, I want to call your attention to three troubling developments.
For those who thought the notion of robot reporters was still quite a ways off, the first development is the most alarming. According to a recent article at Nieman Lab by Sophie Culpepper, an independent publisher has been experimenting with just that in his spare time, and the results are, well, not bad.
Mark Talkington, who runs a hyperlocal start-up called The Palm Beach Post in California, has been feeding governmental meetings that are available on YouTube into an AI system designed by a friend of his. Importantly, it’s not an off-the-shelf product like ChatGPT or Google Bard. Rather, it’s been trained on reliable news and information from his coverage area, which reduces if not eliminates the likelihood of “hallucinations,” the term for false but plausible-sounding output produced by AI.
The example Culpepper quoted from reads like what journalism professors disapprovingly tell their students is an “agenda story” — that is, it begins with something like Members of the board of sewer commissioners began their meeting by saluting the flag rather than with a lead grounded in the most interesting thing that happened. Nor has Talkington actually published any AI-generated stories yet. He said in his interview with Culpepper that he’s concerned about AI missing out on body language and, of course, on the ability to snag an elected official in the hallway during a break in the meeting.
But he said he could see using it to take notes and, eventually, to cover meetings that his thinly stretched staff can’t get to. And that’s how it begins: with a sympathetic hyperlocal publisher using AI to extend his reach, only to see the technology adopted by cost-cutting newspaper chains looking to dump reporters.
My second example might be called “speaking of which.” Because Gannett, whose 200 or so daily newspapers make it the largest corporate chain, announced recently that it, too, is experimenting with generative AI. Helen Coster of Reuters reports that, at first, AI will be used to generate content like bullet points that summarize the most important facts in a story, and that humans will check its work. That feature will be rolled out in the chain’s flagship newspaper, USA Today, later this year.
Gannett is hardly the only news organization that’s playing with AI; The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and others are all looking into ways to make use of it. But Gannett is notoriously tight-fisted and, as Coster notes, has slashed and burned its way to tenuous profitability. “Gannett’s journalists are fighting to ensure that they aren’t replaced by the technology,” she wrote. “Hundreds walked off the job over staff cuts and stagnant wages on June 5. Generative AI is a sticking point in some negotiations with the company, the union said.”
The third warning sign comes from Sebastian Grace, who passed along a truly disturbing item that the German tabloid Bild is laying off about 200 journalists while ramping up its use of AI. (Seb recently wrote a fine piece on journalism and AI for our website What Works: The Future of Local News.) Although those two developments at Bild are said to be unrelated, Jon Henley of The Guardian writes that Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Bild’s corporate owner, Axel Springer, has said that ChatGPT and its ilk could “make independent journalism better than it ever was — or replace it.”
Axel Springer, by the way, also owns Politico, an important U.S. outlet for news about politics and public policy.
Do I think AI will soon replace reporters who do the hard work of going out and getting stories? No — at least not right away. But we’ve been losing journalists for 25 years now, and it seems certain that AI will be used, misused and abused in ways that accelerate that trend.