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AI-powered search, reader mistrust prompt flight to quality in GenAI content era

By Sonali Verma

INMA

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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I worked as a business news journalist through a couple of major financial crises. One term that often pops up at times like that is “flight to quality” — that at times of uncertainty, investors prefer to put their money in assets that are of high quality, with lower risk profiles, so they can sleep better at night.

That’s a theme I am hearing echoed in the media world as we talk about generative AI, the Internet, and the uncertain times we face. There are two main concerns these days:

  • AI-powered search will subsume traffic to news publishers’ sites by providing the summarised answers to users’ questions instead of sending them to the source Web sites (and this could lead to US$2 billion in ad revenue loss annually across the U.S. publishing industry).

  • Growing user mistrust of news on the Internet because there is so much AI-generated misinformation out there.

When I have spoken to news industry executives about these risks in recent days, half a dozen of them have confidently spoken about flight to quality: They believe that in times of uncertainty, audiences will turn away from commodity content on the Internet generated by AI.

News executives believe readers will turn to quality content in an era of lesser-trusted AI content.
News executives believe readers will turn to quality content in an era of lesser-trusted AI content.

“By definition, content that is produced by generative AI is average content,” one executive told me. When it comes to writing, LLMs are basically auto-complete functions trained on the entire Internet. The next word generated in each instance is the most likely word that will follow — in other words, the average result.

He’s not the first one to point out that this does not sound like fine writing. LLMs write for a median audience using median words and do not write well in a way that sounds human: “Terribly uniform and uniformly terrible,” as one academic said, adding that the writing is clear but “the reader has the impression of reading an instruction manual.”

And this was before Google’s AI Overviews started making terrible mistakes. (I do think that they will improve, though.) Google’s CEO has gone on the record as saying that AI Overviews actually have increased clicks and referral traffic to news companies. A Google representative told the INMA Generative AI master class that certain queries, such as those about breaking news, will be excluded from AI Overviews. 

It’s not just about the writing when it comes to quality — it is also about the user experience, Tim O’Rourke, vice president of content strategy at Hearst Newspapers, told me. 

“We are creating products that make us the place to come for the best local, unique, high-quality journalism in the region,” he said. “The more unique our journalism is, the better off we’re going to be. The less we try to make content to game SEO, the better.” 

You can learn more about Hearst’s efforts in the GenAI internet era here. O’Rourke was presenting along with Edward Hyatt, director of SEO at The Wall Street Journal, who also talked about how we can future-proof the news business at a time when the Internet is overrun with AI-generated content and many are concerned about how our audiences will find our content.

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About Sonali Verma

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