AI in the Newsroom: Opportunities, Threats, Action Steps25. August 2023
Depending on who you talk to, AI will either be the end of civilization or is the greatest technology the world has ever seen. What does it mean for the future of journalism?
Short on time? Scroll down for News Publisher Action Steps for AI.
AI and the Current Media Landscape
Generative AI may be the current perceived threat, but the traditional journalism model has been broken beyond repair for years. An unintended consequence of artificial intelligence is that it may usher in a very real and much needed transformation of the news industry.
If you need further evidence of the need for change, read the Digital News Report 2023 from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. One of the brutally honest takeaways: “Many publishers are struggling to convince people that their news is worth paying attention to, let alone paying for.”
(It’s worth noting that the annual Digital News Report has drawn criticism for its methodology, with Nobel-prize winning journalist Maria Ressa raising concerns that the report is being used by government officials to attack journalists.)
News avoidance is an ongoing challenge. The relentless news cycle, which often focuses on violence and extreme political division, has prompted news consumers to tune out. According to the Digital News Report, 36 percent of news consumers say they avoid news, often or sometimes. For those who haven’t completely removed news consumption from their daily habits, their news interest has fallen. Fewer than half (48%) of Digital News Report’s aggregate sample said they are very or extremely interested in news.
Amid this gloomy environment for traditional media outlets, AI has emerged as yet another disruptive force. While there are new generative AI-powered tools that are gaining a lot of attention, automation has been integrated into newsroom workflows for quite some time. This 2021 survey conducted by the Knight Foundation captured over 100 AI and automation projects being conducted in newsrooms.
Journalists have eyed the rapidly developing AI-powered search products with a mix of skepticism and trepidation. Is this yet another pivot to a hot trend that attracts the attention of media company leaders, like video, social media, newsletters, blogs, and a plethora of now-defunct platforms and technologies before it?
Veteran digital journalists like myself have permanent whiplash from the never-ending pivots to the “next big thing” that will save the media industry.
The only thing that has remained constant is change.
Trisolute News Dashboard has been closely monitoring AI developments, particularly those involving Google. As a Google visibility tool designed for news publishers, we want to stay on top of any developments that could impact the search performance of our publishing partners. With social media in disarray (thanks Meta, Twitter) and no longer a reliable traffic driver, Google visibility and the search traffic it can provide has become even more critical for news publishers. But if Google’s search generative experience (SGE) is popular with users, can news publishers expect a collapse of search traffic? What will that mean for an industry that is already on shaky financial ground? Do newsrooms embrace AI technology or push back against it?
These questions and much more were addressed at Media Party. A mix of journalism and technology solutions leaders presented a sober, but ultimately empowering take on what AI developments mean for the media industry. Several interesting themes emerged. One of the most interesting was the concept of “civic journalism.”
Speaking of change, the two loops model of organizational change was discussed at Media Party. It’s a helpful visualization of where the media industry finds itself now.
Grateful to have a friendly audience at #MediaParty for my recent thoughts about journalism, AI & AE (Actual Experience).
— Jennifer Brandel (@JenniferBrandel) June 8, 2023
Jeremy Gilbert from Knight Lab made a bold statement during his Media Party presentation: “News consumers want answers, not stories.”
This point of view was echoed throughout the conference.
Jennifer Brandel from Hearken emphasized the importance of “news and information on how people can live better in their communities.” Her civic media model also included a focus on AE (Actual Experience) instead of AI, pointing out that a journalist’s best weapon against AI is their humanity.
Rishad Patel of Splice Media emphasized the importance of securing an audience’s attention, and why building a user-centric, problem-solving news product will be vital to a newsroom’s survival. He encouraged journalists to “Ask. Listen. Act.”
Google’s own research shows an increased audience interest in local topics and local voices, according to Google’s Dan Newman.
The need for a transformation to a civic media model was also captured in the Digital News Report. Among the report’s findings: “Most consumers are looking not for more news, but news that feels more relevant, and helps them make sense of the complex issues facing us all.”
The civic journalism concept aligns with Google’s focus on “helpful content” and E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) guidelines. Google addresses helpful content in the emerging world of AI-generated content. According to SEO consultant Dr. Marie Haynes. “It’s important to “assess your content across the helpful content questions … The more I learned about the helpful content system I realized how AI made it possible for Google to create a model that’s good at predicting whether content is helpful.”
Let’s take a closer look at the potential opportunities and threats that AI poses to journalism, and wrap up with action steps your newsroom should be taking now to address AI.
AI Opportunities for News Publishers
According to Juan Señor, editor of Innovation in Media 2023 World Report, “Generative AI is not about digital transformation but the transformation of digital.”
Miranda Marcus of BBC News Labs echoed a similar sentiment at Media Party: “Social media democratized distribution of content. Generative AI is about to democratize the production of content.”
Machine learning and AI projects have been taking place in newsrooms around the world for years. The London School of Economics and Political Science JournalismAI Case Studies database has tracked these projects.
There is a great deal unknown about how generative AI will impact the media industry, but the experimentation phase is underway. Newsrooms are using AI to create content, brainstorm headlines, sift through dense documents for research purposes, transcribe meetings and fact-checking. In a world of shrinking newsrooms in both staff and coverage areas, AI tools could help fill in some critical coverage gaps.
The early results have been mixed at best. Some news outlets were embarrassed by publishing AI-written articles that were filled with inaccuracies. AI is prone to hallucinations, in which it offers a response that it seems confident is correct, but is actually filled with made-up information.
Aimee Rinehart from The Associated Press recommends targeting repetitive tasks and small wins to get your newsroom motivated around AI projects.
The Associated Press divides AI uses into three main categories:
- News gathering: Your newsroom regularly sorts through data to find specific events, transcribes audio/video or engages in fact-checking.
- News production: Your newsroom regularly creates stories from structured data, localizes articles or wants to convert text to audio.
- News distribution: Your company wants to make better article recommendations, more relevant ads or personalized landing pages.
The Texas Tribune is experimenting with AI in several ways:
- Smart tags to mark entities
- Correction suggestions, sponsor disclosures, cross-linking opportunities built into their CMS
- Building out knowledge graphs for public data like campaign finance
- Generating copy drafts
- Leveraging their archive: Inspired by BloombergGPT
International publishers are also experimenting with AI in the newsroom. South China Morning Post used AI to power their article recommendation process, with very successful results.
The Toronto Star used AI to compile and generate crime reports. According to JournalismAI Discovery, the crime beat staff found that automation “helped them rethink traditional crime reporting and find ways to cover these incidents in a responsible and equitable manner.”
AI Threats for News Publishers
AI-generated content poses a direct threat to the media industry, though in its current form, most AI-written content is dull and prone to errors. It’s not prime-time yet, but will it be “good enough” in the near future? For less than scrupulous publishers, who care more about revenue than quality, the answer is most likely yes.
AI replacing newsroom jobs is a legitimate concern. With more newsrooms under scrutiny from their venture capitalist owners, it’s easier to imagine AI being used as an excuse to trim newsroom staff even beyond the massive cuts that the media industry has endured over the last several years.
But perhaps the biggest threat from AI comes from AI-powered search, such as Bing’s partnership with Chat-GPT and Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE). There are multiple threats from AI here, including lack of sourcing and a major transformation of Google’s search ranking algorithm that news publishers have relied upon to get their content in front of their audience.
Google describes SGE in the following way: “the new generative AI powered Search experience will help you take some of the work out of searching, so you can understand a topic faster, uncover new viewpoints and insights and get things done more easily.”
As Avram Piltch, editor-in-chief of Tom’s Hardware outlines in very convincing fashion, Google’s SGE in its current form is not accurately and consistently citing its sources when it creates its AI-powered snapshots to search queries. This could have devastating consequences for news publishers if Google doesn’t make sourcing a mandatory part of its SGE when it’s released to the public. Google’s SGE grabs bits and pieces of articles from across the internet and compiles them into a conversational response that sits at the top of search results. Without proper sourcing, not only is the original publisher not getting due credit, but the quote used from their article may be lacking context or misconstrued when SGE mashes a response together. This could hurt a newsroom’s brand and reputation.
The other major threat from AI-powered search engines is drastically decreased search visibility.
With the traditional “10 blue links” getting pushed down underneath the generative AI snapshot in SGE, there is less opportunity to be visible at the top of Google’s SERPS.
There is a legitimate concern that the generative AI snapshot in SGE will reduce the amount of pages a user will browse when researching a particular topic or seeking an answer to a question. If the SGE provides an acceptable answer, the user potentially may click on no links, also known as “zero-click searches.”
The flipside to this is that if Google becomes too good at generating answers to queries that lead to “zero-click searches,” then it will also face consequences, including reduced user engagement and ability to serve ads. It will be in Google’s best interest to refine the AI-generated search experience in a way that doesn’t make its traditional search offerings irrelevant.
News Publisher Action Steps for AI
One thing your newsroom cannot afford to do is ignore AI.
Even if the threats and doomsday scenarios being discussed by pundits prove to be overblown, the newest AI-powered technology tools are already having an impact on the media industry.
“Publishers need to further accelerate their transition to digital, embracing new business models, different types of storytelling, and new forms of distribution too. There will be many different paths but innovation, flexibility, and a relentless audience focus will be some of the key ingredients for success.” (Digital News Report 2023)
- Experiment with AI tools in your newsroom. Use the resources in the Journalist’s Toolbox AI to get started.
- Hire or train staff on creating prompts, as this is a critical skill to successfully use generative AI tools.
- Develop a newsroom policy around AI usage. Take a look at The Guardian’s approach to AI for inspiration.
- Define your newsroom’s position on your content being used in AI-powered search. If you’re concerned about Google using your content without proper attribution, become a vocal advocate. Juan Señor, editor of the Innovation in Media 2023 World Report, suggested news publishers take a stance similar to Getty and Spotify: “We need to block the bots scraping our content,” he said.
- Smaller publishers may want to consider becoming hyperlocal and focusing on niches that are essential to their audiences, an approach suggested by Jacob Donnelly, the publisher of Morning Brew. Block Club Chicago also has seen a great deal of success by taking a hyperlocal, civic news approach.
- Focus on how to use AI as a weapon for good in the battle against disinformation. While it’s true that AI itself can be a source of disinformation, the technology can also be harnessed to identify disinformation and provide additional context when it comes to reporting on controversial issues. Just note that its fact-checking capabilities are not quite ready for prime-time just yet, according to an experiment conducted by Poynter.
One of the biggest developments to prepare for is how AI transforms search results in Google, which accounts for a significant amount of newsroom search traffic. Here are recommendations on how best to position your news outlet to take advantage of AI-powered search algorithms.
- Understanding your audience will be more important than ever. Using a search analytics tool designed for news publishers like Trisolute’s News Dashboard can help uncover critical intelligence around your audience’s topic interests and ensure you are answering the most popular search queries for a particular topic. Keep in mind the civic model approach.
- Building topic authority is even more critical for news publishers who find themselves competing with a flood of dubious AI-generated content. Trisolute’s News Dashboard can help you identify topics and categories in which Google recognizes your search authority, along with identifying new content opportunities to build greater authority. Uncover angles that your competitors haven’t covered yet that your newsroom can offer a unique perspective.
- Ensure that staff bios are optimized to reflect the individual’s topic authority.
- Update existing content that you determine has potential to be cited in Google’s SGE. Trisolute’s News Dashboard can help you identify existing content that offers the greatest potential for success. Search Engine Land offers a good content optimization blueprint.
- Experience will matter more than ever. Not just in topic authority, but by highlighting the average person’s experience across a variety of topics. Google’s Perspectives and User Generated Content (UGC) may be growing areas of opportunity for news publishers who can target those areas with content that features local voices and viewpoints.
- Analyze Google Discover data to understand which topics are most popular with your audience. Trisolute’s News Dashboard tool offers a Google Discover report that not only provides Google Discover data, but displays in the same view if that article is also ranking on the mobile and desktop SERPS and Google News.
- Monitor the performance of your newsroom’s AI content projects so you can build upon successes and recalibrate your focus in underperforming areas. Trisolute’s News Dashboard offers a robust set of historical data in our KPI Dashboard reports, where publishers can monitor mobile and desktop SERP ranking performance.
AI presents another potential major shift in workflows, but there are a lot of smart folks using AI in positive ways in their newsrooms. Now is the time for education and experimentation by using AI tools in your newsroom so you can be prepared for what comes next.
Paying attention to your search performance will be more critical than ever as Google refines its AI-powered search product and prepares its release to the general public. Expect search traffic patterns to be disrupted. Identifying and growing your topic authority will be crucial in this new AI-powered landscape. Trisolute’s News Dashboard offers several features to help you analyze, optimize and monitor your search performance.
Not yet part of the Trisolute News Dashboard family? Request your FREE demo today and find out how your articles rank on Google Discover, Google News and the SERPs!