Big Media’s AI About-Face

Artificial intelligence (AI) underpins a vast swath of modern life. The software behind voice and facial recognition, ride-hail apps, navigation mapping and curated social media feeds are a tiny selection of AI powering everyday tools. AI integration is simply not as new as recent news coverage suggests. That is particularly true for the industry responsible for reporting on it: the media industry.

As early as 2015, the Associated Press started publishing content with the help of AI. What began as an individual story quickly evolved into 3,000+ financial articles per quarter that “went out to the wire without human intervention.” The AP wasn’t alone. The Washington Post created its own AI tech in 2016 to draft pieces about various topics including federal elections and the Olympics. In total, The Washington Post’s AI, dubbed the Heliograf, produced more than 850 articles generating a reported 500,000 clicks in its first year alone.

Fast forward to 2023, and AI is becoming more ubiquitous in media. In January, Buzzfeed acknowledged it would leverage ChatGPT to develop reader-engaging quizzes and help personalize content for its audience. Gannett CFO Doug Horne relayed during an earnings call this year that it will save upwards of $200 million thanks in part to investments and efficiencies brought about by AI. Meanwhile, Insider CEO Nicholas Carlson sent a memo to the company’s newsroom recently encouraging AI usage among writers, likening its utility to bicycles. “Humans were a slow species until the bicycle came along. Used right, AI can also make us smarter and faster,” wrote Carlson.

Despite embracing AI to support its business goals and inform readers, media industry lobbyists at the News Media Alliance are simultaneously engaging in a new fearmongering campaign against AI. As a part of its recently released set of AI principles, the News Media Alliance claims that the very AI systems created or being used by publishers are violating publishers’ rights.

To advance this two-faced agenda, the News Media Alliance has returned to a familiar legislative vehicle: the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). Before failing in Congress last year, the JCPA was introduced to expressly force tech platforms to both carry and pay for Big Media content.

Upon its reintroduction this year, bill sponsor Senator Amy Klobuchar included a novel reference to AI: “[L]ocal news is facing an existential crisis, from ad revenues plummeting and newsrooms across the country closing to artificial intelligence tools taking content.” Rather than acknowledging the central role big media conglomerates like Gannett have played in buying up and closing down local media or the utility of AI in modern journalism, Senator Klobuchar and the News Media Alliance are heaping more blame on their primary scapegoat: tech platforms.

By trying to have it both ways – castigating AI while integrating it into their own operations – Big Media is further undermining its own credibility.

AI – as the media industry’s various commitments make clear – is helping to support the existing journalism ecosystem and presents new ways to reach and serve audiences. While AI’s further integration within the media industry may present new challenges, fearmongering about AI to force tech platforms to carry Big Media content via the JCPA won’t help solve them.