Why the news business should stop biting the hand that feeds it, and find a better hand instead
AI’s sudden leap forward is a huge threat to all human specialists. That’s why journalists should leave dealing with robot-writers to everyone else, and concentrate on a more immediate and specific risk – social media.
Journalism matters more than ever
The prospect of the Internet becoming overrun by robot-written content is alarming enough. It would be less alarming if ChatGPT stuck to lifestyle articles and sports reports.
The big threat comes from unfettered robots imitating human journalists in the realm of influential articles about serious topics. Fake News matters most where it intersects with the messier part of the human spectrum of activities, like morality, elections and wars -the life-and-death stuff, at least for humans.
We’ve allowed machines to take over boring, dirty or dangerous jobs, and are now standing by as they start to put non-manual professionals like accountants, realtors, lawyers, voiceover artists, animators and translators out of work.
Some are now starting to get really antsy at the prospect of robots ‘controlling’ news. It wouldn’t even take a Bond villain to break the Internet – doing nothing, and letting the bots loose, might do the job just as well.
If we simply continue allowing chatbots to randomly reflect the consensus of The Internet, the consequences are unpredictable, and potentially disastrous.
A bit like the greenhouse effect, except the process isn’t random, and the consequences are more predictable. And from a human perspective, far more disastrous.
We’re having enough trouble getting ourselves to focus on the climate inconvenient truth. This makes how we deal with this 21st-century existential threat we’ve created for ourselves instructive in how we deal with the 18th-century one we’re still letting rip.
Dealing with both threats requires ‘proper’, old-school, ethical journalism and respect for facts.
Which is why this is a really bad time for proper, ethical journalism to be in crisis.
It started to go wrong in the mid-90s, so that’s where we should start looking for lessons.
Two converging existential threats
In 1996, just when climate experts were starting to get seriously worried about the greenhouse effect, computer experts were telling us the Internet was going to change the world anyway.
By 1999, David Bowie had famously grasped this, though the sceptical journalist interviewing him, Jeremy Paxman, had not. Neither mentioned any connection between the Internet and climate change.
Nor was anyone aware of what a blinder the first generation of Silicon Valley Overlords were playing. In retrospect, it’s an object lesson in regulating new technology before it’s too late. Even at the time, few observers recognised just what a cunning plan was being set in motion against the very people who were supposed to alert the rest of us to such developments.
First these start-up internet companies talked lawmakers into setting a trap. Then they suckered newspapers into blundering into it.
The trap was Section 230, the newspapers’ mistake was giving away their content for free.
We’re still dealing with the aftermath.
In 1996, Congress was clueless about the implications of agreeing to insert Section 230 into the Communications Decency Act. Journalism has been on the back foot ever since.
Back in the 90s, print and TV news was owned by old-fashioned press barons. Some of those media giants, like Murdoch’s, have survived. Today, media giants’ ultimate owners are more likely to be hedge fund managers.
It hardly matters, if both appear to still be making the same mistakes.
Journalism’s Fateful Mistake
For centuries, what we now call ‘Old Media’ was nourished by the same two sources: charging money for dead trees, in the form of newsprint, and advertisements printed on those dead trees, in the form of advertising.
Then along came the SVOs, advertising wolves dressed in disruptor’s clothing. They dazzled the press barons with promises of even greater prosperity, playing on their greed for a share of the Brave New World.
Fatefully, the press barons and broadcasters believed the Internet would create an even greater flow of advertising money, and the new ‘platforms’ would indeed act as platforms, and divert large amounts of this new online El Dorado ino their coffers.
They didn’t recognize that the SVOs, for all their casual clothes and Valley talk, were just advertising companies using new tech, and just as rapacious capitalists as any Murdoch, Hearst or Beaverbrook.
Instead, Facebook, Google & co diverted the money flow, sucking up most of the ad dollar, leaving newspapers to scrap over the diminishing trickle they decided to pass on.
By the time the Old Media barons realised this new arrangement benefitted the SVO disruptors far more than them, it was too late to cram the Internet genie back into the bottle. When relative minnows, the social media tech bros bamboozled America’s lawmakers into treat them like platforms, not publishers.
Some of them are better informed now, but with those tech minnows now massive global behemoths, Congress appears powerless to do anything other than grandstand and tinker.
SVO’s firehose of lobbying money is even more powerful than Big Oil’s, none bigger than Facebook’s, and grows more powerful as they take a greater share of the growing global pie.
The new news providers
Silicon Valley Overlords and their investors didn’t just snigger in private, keep a straight face when talking to Old Media into giving them yet more free content, and watch the money roll in.
At first, big players hedged their bets by buying up established content providers. They were mainly interested in TV broadcasters and movie studios, as that was where the big bucks were, but some also bought into news.
Did Microsoft start its ‘news and technology sharing partnership’ with NBC News in 1996 because they thought it might make them a fortune, or as insurance against bad publicity?
By the time Microsoft and NBC announced their conscious decoupling in 2013, it no longer mattered. The Disruptors had long entered the news market, and the future appeared to be theirs.
Canadian interlopers Vice, billed as the next CNN, were valued at nearly $6Bn. They turned down a buyout offer from Disney.
Buzzfeed, Vox and others followed similar trajectories. Old Media started to wonder if this is what weavers and spinners felt like in the Industrial Revolution.
The future was online. This meant playing the SVO’s game of grabbing attention. Eyeballs was the new currency, and eye-grabbing clickbait and listicles the future of news.
Old Media protests about ethics, evidence, context and analysis were dismissed as the quaint bleatings of the defeated pensioners.
The old news providers
Bleaters-in-chief were Old Media, ambushed by the Internet.
Some Old Media brands doubled down on quality, establishing trusted brands that permitted them, via paywalls or subscriptions, to still charge users to read their content. The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Economist found various ways of achieving this. So did The Wall Street Journal, but at the cost of selling to Murdoch.
These big names needed the money because they needed to go global to compete, and that’s expensive. Hence only a tiny minority have made it to these sunlit uplands of having people pay to read your articles.
Lesser brands, or more local titles, felt they had no choice but to cut costs, consolidate, and automate. But when you’re competing with instantly-scalable global brands, the odds are against you.
One by one, venerable independent local titles realised they were bankrupt, at which point hedge-fund backed corporate agglomerators hoovered them up by the dozen. American corporate news providers like GateHouse and Gannett set the pattern, soon emulated by Newsquest and Reach in the UK, PostMedia and TorStar in Canada, and others wherever governments left ‘the market’ to its own devices.
There were exceptions, like Sweden and Germany. Each has laws designed specifically to protect independent local journalism, which still thrives in those countries. This proves the corporatisation of news is a political choice, or act of negligence, not an economic inevitability. Sweden and Germany not only demonstrate that the solution lies in government regulation, but even how relatively simple laws, and not much subsidy, can preserve ethical local journalism. So long as you think it’s worth preserving.
In the Anglosphere and most ‘free market’ countries without these protections, consolidation gathered pace, meaning independently-owned local papers are now rarities. There have been many imaginative attempts to find business models that retain journalistic ethics and still make a profit, but all struggle. Less than 10% of surviving local titles in the UK are independent.
The hedge-fund owners, meanwhile, instruct their bean-counters to look for ‘efficiency savings’, which come at the cost of ethical, responsible journalism. The corporates were enthusiastic early adopters of robot journalism, and publish bylines honking their euphemism for clickbait merchants, ‘SEO Journalists’.
The See Through News Newspaper Review Project details this process in painful detail. Its pilot study, The Salisbury Journal, is a case study of this sudden decline. First published in 1729, the Journal thrived as an independent, locally owned voice of the people of southeast Wiltshire for nearly three centuries.
At the turn of the millennium, the Journal still had a city centre newsroom bustling with a couple of dozen professional journalists. Some were local news veterans, others keen young journalists using local news as a career stepping stone.
Now, as documented by our Salisbury Journal Review Facebook Group, it’s a shell of its former self, stripped of staff and resources. The Journal’s website is increasingly unreadable as the bean-counters, keen to blur the lines between editorial and advertisements, deliberately make it hard to tell the difference.
The Journal’s owners, Newsquest, do their best to conceal their ownership, in order to squeeze the last drop of residual goodwill from these zombie titles.
Newsquest’s American owners, Gannett, pass on tips on how to dress up ‘User-Generated Content’ as professional copy, and stick human faces and bylines on robot-written articles.
Gannet’s hedge fund owners the New Media Investment Group, pay themselves large bonuses, leverage themselves to the max, and wonder why their financial discipline isn’t resulting in more eyeballs.
More about the eyeballs and ‘attention currency’ shortly, but first it’s reasonable to ask why any of this matters.
Journalism has survived plenty of previous technological innovations. Radio didn’t kill the newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio. The Internet didn’t kill TV.
We’ll soon find out how the current panic about AI killing the Internet plays out, but complacency is ill-placed. Technology is changing too quickly, in too unregulated a manner, for us to sit it all out, and see what emerges when the dust settles.
That other big existential problem from the 90s, climate change, has been so neglected that if we continue to drag our heels, runaway temperatures may make all the hand-wringing about AI destroying humanity moot, as we may have already done the job ourselves without any Skynet or Matrix help.
Specifically, when it comes to news, the fact that ‘platforms’ continue to hold such an effective stranglehold over news providers is a massive red flag that we’ve learned nothing, and continue to devalue ethical, human-produced news at our own risk..
The latest twist in this rapidly-developing and messy information war illustrates the mess we’ve got ourselves in.
AI, LLMs, GPT & journalism
Human journalists may wind up being devoured by the alphabetic army of technology of Artificial Intelligence, Large Language Models and Generative Pre-Trained Transformers.
In the very short term AI, LLMs and GPT are providing Old and New Media journalists with some temporary nourishment. Like an octopus nibbling at a shark that’s munching on its legs, newspapers and websites are full of articles about this cutting edge technology that’s threatening just about every area of human expertise.
Such worries are almost wishful thinking. AI may present an imminent threat, but it’s still a future threat. Meanwhile, the media panic created by ChatGPT and LLMs may have distracted corporate news providers from the fact that Facebook, on which many news titles depend on for up to 80% of their total revenue, may have just pulled the plug on them.
It’s behind you!
An article from press trade publication Press Gazette reveals why corporate news publishers should be more concerned about the monster that’s just stopped feeding it, before losing too much sleep over the monster on the horizon.
The article is based on a reasonably large amount of quite detailed data from specialist publishing analysts Chartbeat and Similarweb. On its own, it may just be coincidence, or a blip explained by other factors, but the trend is so dramatic, and so specific, only a foolhardy corporate media owner would ignore it.
It shows that Facebook has, without fanfare, but in keeping with vague public statements about wanting to ‘get out of news’, has suddenly and dramatically dialled down the number of ‘referrals’ they give them.
Facebook referral traffic in April was just 2% of its volume at the start of 2018.
Lower Facebook referral traffic means dialling down the eyeball bandwidth they give to their articles. Which means less advertising revenue. Which could mean going the way of Vice, Buzzfeed News, and Gawker.
The smaller you are, the greater the impact.
For the largest publishers (over 100,000 average daily page views) this was down 24%, while for medium-sized outlets (between 10,000 and 100,000 average daily page views), the fall was 46%.
For any news provider dependent on Facebook referrals, this is really really bad news.
News without Facebook
This news should, but probably won’t, make corporate media owners reflect on the risks of building their business models on social media foundations.
For years, they’ve been trying to reverse the disastrous impacts of their fateful decision, a quarter of a century ago, to give away their content for free. This may have turned into a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for.
Old media has been using old-school courts and lobbying to demand some more of the advertising pie goes to them, as ‘content creators’, and less to the platforms, when their content is ‘shared’.
But any Supreme Court victories might be Pyrrhic. By fighting our Silicon Valley Overlords to claw back some of ‘their’ advertising revenue, the hedge funds may be hastening their own demise.
The uncomfortable reality is that by giving away their content for free, corporates like Reach Global Media, which the Press Gazette article focuses on, have hitched themselves to juggernauts to whom they’re a relatively minor irritation.
As this article suggests, with a click of a mouse, Silicon Valley Overlords like Mark Zuckerberg can reduce the size of the pie they’re bickering about, without feeling much ill effect.
It suggests that Old Media matters much less to our SVOs than the SVOs’ platforms matter to Old Media.
Intention, not attention
So where has all this New Media disruption and Old Media corporate restructuring got us?
Vice, which in its heyday raised $1.6Bn in investment over 9 rounds, is now bust.
Buzzfeed has recently abandoned news altogether, and is trying to secure its future by boasting to its remaining investors how its AI quiz setters are outperforming their human employees.
Buzzfeed’s zeitgeisty rival Gawker, once also valued in billions, folded in February 2023. Along with other New Media pretenders like Vox, it’s a footnote, and cautionary tale.
Adam Ryan, a media commentator who’s documented this tale of hubris in detail, draws what he calls a ‘trifecta of company killers’ from the Vice cautionary tale. Two are generic corporate misgovernance which could apply to any business, but his #1 is particular to the news business:
Failure to turn attention into intention
For anyone, like See Through News, with the Goal of ‘Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active’, by leveraging the free infrastructure designed by our SVOs, this is an important insight.
Eyeballs for their own sake are empty calories. Whether you’re Old Media, New Media or a zero-budget activist social media network, losing sight of your ultimate goal spells doom.
This applies whether you’re Goal is Delivering Shareholder Value, Promoting Ethical Journalism, or Measurably Reducing Carbon.
Which in turn implies that Old Media, so long as it persists along their clickbait paths, may either bite off the hand that currently feeds it, or even more humiliatingly, find the hand no longer feels the need to feed it at all…