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Stop Letting Them In The House

AI’s destruction of journalism isn’t inevitable

3:31 PM EST on February 5, 2024

Light blue lines on a darker blue background, with a robot hand reaching for them
Tara Winstead

It’s a big day for AI in journalism–or at least, for Microsoft. This morning, Semafor revealed a partnership with Microsoft to bring AI to its newsroom. Meanwhile, CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism announced applications for its tuition-free AI Journalism Lab–made, you guessed it, “in collaboration with Microsoft.”

Semafor–a newsletter but also a website founded by two journalism guys with the last name “Smith”--will partner with Microsoft on a section called “Signals,” which will use a custom AI bot, built using OpenAI, to assist journalists with research, particularly in non-English languages. Semafor insists that journalists will still write the news; how much money Microsoft is giving it for all this has not been disclosed. 

Newmark, meanwhile–which plays a valuable role as a public, and thus more affordable, graduate journalism school–will run a short-term lab in which students “will alternate classes between lectures by AI visionaries and hands-on sessions by seasoned practitioners, with many opportunities for meaningful discussions, and the participants will be expected to work on a final project on an AI-related topic of their choosing, with help from a coach.” Microsoft is “providing financial support for the program.”

Both of these are part of a new Microsoft initiative to get its sneaky AI tentacles into journalism, which Microsoft says is to “[help] these organizations identify and refine the procedures and policies to use AI responsibly in newsgathering and business practices, helping train a new generation of reporters on best uses of AI and identify ways AI can help create efficient business practices and help build sustainable newsrooms for generations to come.” 

Let me be not remotely the first to say: I fucking doubt it! Microsoft is, notably, facing a lawsuit from The New York Times–which, say what you like about it, is nevertheless a pretty important institution in the field of journalism–over copyright infringement regarding OpenAI’s training datasets. OpenAI, meanwhile, said it’s “impossible” for it to do what it does without copyright infringement, which if you ask me sounds fine, but my bias is clearly showing. Microsoft could surely stand to spiff up its image here, if it wants  to convince journalists that it wants to do more than just degrade their work and cost them their jobs. 

Except that’s exactly what it’s here to do. We’ve already seen the AI disaster in newsrooms: crappy, incorrect articles, fake journalists, and bosses eager to replace writers with AI, which can’t do pesky things like complain or unionize. While all of these sins weren’t committed by OpenAI, Microsoft must surely know AI is facing a bit of an image crisis where journalism is concerned. However, this crisis for AI comes at a time when the bottom is falling out of the journalism industry financially. This is due in part to, as Hamilton Nolan puts it, “big tech companies… figuring out how to extract all of the revenue from journalism without actually making any journalism.” 

So it’s no big mystery what’s happening here. Microsoft is eager to look good, and journalism is eager to not starve to death. Journalism is an easy place from which a company can siphon money and get out with the bag, because it is desperate, and because it’s relied for so long on the pseudo-largesse of advertising, tech, and rich owners. Even if you hate journalism, we can all agree it’s in trouble, so it’s easy for a company with some money to look like a good guy by rushing in. Outlets and organizations will get some short-term cash, and Microsoft will get to paint itself as the friend of journalism, harnessing a potent new technology to make the world a better place. 

That we heard a similar line during the NFT boom-and-bust, and again during the recent metaverse craze, also a bust, does not seem to be bothering anyone here. We all remember “pivot to video” but also seem to have forgotten it. And now we’re doing it again! We’re letting them back in our house, maybe because we see some flicker of good behind the mountain of bullshit that is AI, or maybe because we’ve bought their line that this technology, this time, really is the unstoppable future so we’d better get on-board. Or maybe just because we’re desperate for their fucking money. (Lord knows CUNY is.) 

And, man, I get it: there’s no easy fix to the crisis currently plaguing journalism, and if Microsoft came around waving a big bag of cash in my face, I might also entertain the possibility that maybe I could do some good stuff with that money and keep my morals and dignity intact. But I simply don’t think you can. I think any concession to AI’s lies is just making it not look like what it is: the latest doomed obsession of Silicon Valley assholes who want to play god, who are so full of their own farts that maybe they don’t even know what kind of bullshit they’re peddling, who simply want to get theirs and don’t care what it destroys in the process.

Plenty of journalists and outlets, many of them quite experienced and even people I respect, disagree with me on this. They see some good in AI’s smoke-and-mirror promises and think they can harness that good without destroying themselves in the process. And I could see Newmark believing it’s training the next generation of journalists for the actual future they’re going to face, not the one we wish we had. Whether or not any of these people intend to save journalists’ jobs is another question–I think the “good” outlets (and I’d put Semafor in this category) know that AI-written articles are a one-way ticket down the drain, but I’d wager even the most kind-hearted newspaper owner would take any opportunity to slash jobs if they could do it without humiliating their outlet in the process. 

None of this is inevitable. I’d even argue it’s pretty unlikely; we’re already seeing signs of AI faltering. We don’t have to fall for this again! Lock the doors, draw the blinds, and stop slurping up their bullshit. If anyone should be able to see what a bad idea this is, it’s journalists.

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