How artificial intelligence is rewriting the media landscape
When Perth-based fintech start-up Grafa lost its news presenter to a competitor last year, chief executive Heidi Cuthbert installed an artificial intelligence anchor in their place.
The AI anchor, named Andy, presented its first story on Bitcoin in October, before becoming the company’s dedicated cryptocurrencies reporter.
Fintech company Grafa began using their AI presenter, Andy, before recruiting journalist Sarah Hugham.Credit:Tony McDonough
“It was exciting because one of our biggest frustrations is that the price of cryptocurrency is so volatile,” Cuthbert says. “Whenever we used to record a video, the prices would fluctuate in the time it took to record it.”
While it can take up to an hour to set up the studio crew and record a video with a human presenter, Cuthbert says AI can turn around a video story within minutes.
Her company, founded in 2018, is one of several media players integrating AI into their operations, as platforms including ChatGPT bring the rapidly advancing applications of these technologies into mainstream awareness.
In the US, shares in digital media company BuzzFeed soared on reports last month that it was planning to use AI to personalise and enhance the firm’s online content.
In a memo sent by chief executive Jonah Peretti to his staff, the company said AI-powered quizzes could produce “unique, shareable write-ups based on the individual’s response,” and that it would become part of its core business this year. Bank of America analysts were positive on the news, saying that if AI gains further adoption, there would be “potential for AI to drive additional cost-saving opportunities”.
Seyedali Mirjalili, professor at Torrens University Centre for Artificial Intelligence, says AI is more widespread than people think. He believes companies that fail to adopt the technology in the near future will “absolutely be left behind”.
“You don’t realise how much AI is used in daily life,” he says. “It learns from everything you watch and read to make a more personalised experienced for you, helps find the right customers in advertising, and generates news articles, videos and posts. Companies can’t be competitive if they’re not using it.”
For Cuthbert, the technology could allow her news company to run and reach a global audience while she is asleep in Perth.
“Service-based media…will almost certainly be predominantly AI-driven within five years, if not entirely usurped by some new AI media service.”
She isn’t the only local media executive experimenting in the space. Other Australian media companies such as youth culture publication The Brag have experimented with AI in their operations.
Luke Girgis, chief executive of The Brag, wrote in a LinkedIn post last month the company was starting to experiment with using AI. “Just as the invention of the calculator didn’t devalue mathematicians … AI writing won’t devalue the journalists and news writers,” he wrote.
Girgis says there are positive signs from the company’s internal experiment.
“There are a lot of hopeful signs that some of the most tedious parts of publishing will be significantly reduced,” he says. “We see a future where journalists can just report and write, with much of the time-consuming labour associated with tedious tasks replaced by AI.”
Private Media, the owner of online websites Crikey and The Mandarin, is also looking to experiment in this space.
The company’s chief executive, Will Hayward, says the obvious applications are in the back-end commercial side of his business, but that AI’s role in media will “unquestionably grow” in most areas.
“When AI hits the early stages of maturity, the digital publications that will thrive will be ones that invest more in real, feet-on-the-ground journalism.”
“At the moment, media companies are mostly using AI to automate complex calculations and tasks,” he says. “Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash Meredith, said last week that they would never have an article written by AI … but I’d bet a chunk of money he changes his mind on that.”
“Service-based media, where people are looking for an answer to a specific question, will almost certainly be predominantly AI-driven within five years, if not entirely usurped by some new AI media service.”
Nine, the owner of this masthead, uses AI to recommend shows and movies in its streaming offerings. It is also experimenting with using ChatGPT functionality to produce synopses, headlines and summaries, which director of product streaming, Lewis Evans, says could be used to save space on the interfaces of smaller devices such as mobile phones.
Stuart Fagg, Nine’s director of product, publishing, has seen AI used in basic sport and finance reporting at companies such as News Corp and the Associated Press. But he says the technology still lacks the ability to provide context and generate beautiful prose.
Where AI can be better than humans is in content curation.
“We’ve run a whole bunch of tests on human curation versus AI and the AI always wins in increasing engagement time” Fagg says. “The beauty of those AI models is that over time, as an individual consumes more content, the model will learn more about that user and become more intuitive and more successful at engaging the user.”
But Fagg says even in that space, there remains an important role for humans.
“Customers subscribe to the Herald for instance because they want experienced editors to curate content for them,” he says. “There will always be a need in the news environment to talk about what’s current and important right now.”
Where Fagg sees it work best is at news organisations such as the New York Times, where human and AI curated content complement each other.
The technology can also determine how much readers pay for content at some publications.
“I’ve worked a lot with the Wall Street Journal, and they did a huge amount of experimentation around what happens if you create a propensity model that assesses whether or not a reader is a hot, cold or medium prospect in terms of subscription,” Fagg says. “Then they can tailor both the price they pay the introductory offer and the amount of free content they get to consume before they arrive at that paywall.”
The use of AI expands beyond companies and services. Journalists – including those at this masthead – rely on technologies such as real-time transcription service Otter.
But the shift towards AI in journalism has not been without its critics. In 2020, Microsoft laid off about 50 editorial staff in its Microsoft News and MSN organisations as it shifted towards using automation and AI for content editing and curation. The move gained notoriety when, in the same month, the company’s software misidentified a member of the British pop group Little Mix.
While AI can fact-check, increase accuracy and improve efficiency, Mirjalili says it falls short in skills such as empathy, creativity and critical analysis.
And the technology’s heavy dependence on data means it can also perpetuate biases and discrimination. “If the data is biased, then the output will be biased, too,” he says. “The algorithms used in AI need to be transparent and public so that its outcomes can be explained and scrutinised.”
Girgis says that using AI solely as a strategy to cut budgets and pocket savings will be a “death wish”.
“When AI hits the early stages of maturity, the digital publications that will thrive will be the ones that invest more in real, feet-on-the-ground journalism,” he says.
Similarly, Hayward believes AI could help investigative journalists with some of their analysis, but that it’ll be a while before the technology can figure out which billionaires might be up to no good.
“People in front of a camera can get nervous and make mistakes, so AI has improved some of that accuracy.”
While Cuthbert is the first to advocate for the use of AI, she knows there’s a role for human oversight, too. AI has helped with accuracy with data and figures, but she says it doesn’t have editorial judgement – which means scripts need to be sense-checked by humans.
“People still have to make value judgments on events, identify the most important stories, and provide context on why something happened and its impact,” she says.
But on the consumer side, Grafa’s switch to AI presenters has gone largely unnoticed because their users often watch videos with the sound down and with auto-captions on.
While Mirjalili says AI advancements are hard to predict, he is confident that reliance on it will only increase.
“Even as AI researchers, the adoption, public perception and advancement of AI in the last two years has been mind-blowing,” he says. “By the end of this decade, it’s going to be a game-changer.”
News Corp, the ABC and The Guardian declined to comment.
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