Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.
This week, I feature a take on toxic relationships between news media and Big Tech and whether it really is time to stop returning their calls.
Well, that’s one person’s view. My opinion is a little different and much more positive about the impact of technology companies — provided we don’t lose our identities or sight of the mission to produce good journalism.
There’s also a little on the increasing ubiquity of generative AI — exemplified by the arrival of Genesis from Google and the many iterations of Open-AI-powered CoPilot services across the entire suite of Microsoft products. It is everywhere and will be only more so.
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In the belly of the beast: a plea for media to cut the cord with tech
The symbiotic relationship or maybe more epiphyte (a plant that grows on another but does not parasitise it) relationship between media and technology is something we all wrestle with as Facebook falls out of love with news and we realise how dependent we became on an organisation we loved then loved to hate.
A journalist I admire is looking at that on-again-off-again relationship between media and technology firms, which she increasingly defines as akin to a toxic romance — one where you can’t bear to be together but continue messaging the object of your obsessional affection.
She reckons it is time to split properly and to find our own way in the world.
Natalia Antelava is the co-founder of investigative journalism site CodaStory, dedicated to in-depth reporting and “staying on the story.” She has been based in Tbilisi, Georgia, the former Soviet state where corruption and misinformation have become endemic after a period when democracy and new media flourished. Coda was early to report on the impact of disinformation.
Natalia sees our sometime friends in the technology industry — especially those like Facebook who created social networks or Google with its mission to answer all questions — as guilty of spreading disinformation and amplifying it, undermining their very news “partners.” She’s using a fellowship at Stanford University in California to examine the clash between media and tech.
“To me, the relationship resembles a dysfunctional love affair rather than a friendship,” she wrote in a recent post on Medium. “In it, we, journalists, are the chasers. We complain relentlessly and blame tech companies for destroying our business models, yet we want them to stay. We look at them with disdain, yet we can’t hide our adoration. It’s a ‘we hate them, but can’t stop texting’ kind of dynamic.”
She argues that the way media outlets and most of the major industry think tanks and quasi-academic hubs took money from Facebook and Google for research and to build fact-checking operations to counter so-called disinformation may actually have undermined news organisations, almost creating a reality of fake news by looking so hard for it.
She thinks that really looking at the underlying causes of disinformation — such as a Facebook business model built on generating heat rather than light — became impossible because we and the organisations who might have done the digging were taking money from Big Tech.
“Disinformation is the [news] industry’s collective obsession,” Natalia writes. “As the industry, I believe we made a terrible mistake when we framed disinformation as a ‘fake news’ problem. For a long time, focus on the fake news aspect of the disinformation crisis made us, journalists, reactive, defensive, and focused on symptoms rather than underlying causes of disinformation.”
Now the news industry stands fatally compromised by a relationship that tech companies — especially Facebook — have grown tired of and abandoned, leaving us bereft of cash and, in most cases, of the traffic we used to gain. Now we need to build back direct traffic in a world made cacophonous by the noise generated by social media and mass information.
“The problem with tech platforms is that they never brought new voices into a conversation. They brought them into a shouting match in which the loudest, nastiest, the most outrageous are always poised to win,” Natalia writes in the Medium piece.
“This deafening noise of the information ecosystem, I believe, is a huge reason why journalism — and by journalism I mean high-quality, insightful, inclusive reporting — lost its role as a curator of a public conversation … . Trying to figure out how quality journalism can punch through the noise of the digital ecosystem is, in my view, journalism’s most pressing challenge. It is also the focus of much of my work at Stanford,” she writes of her John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship.
I may not agree with all the points Natalia makes, but I have long admired her as an acute analyst, sharp-eyed observer, and brave reporter in the field — not to mention as an entrepreneur. We know we danced with the devil by embedding ourselves so deeply into the business models of technology companies for whom news was only ever a channel.
Full disclosure: I am on the advisory board of CodaStory. I also attended the first of Coda’s amazing Zeg (a Georgian word for “the day after tomorrow”) non-fiction storytelling festival.
Generative AI is everywhere all the time and it is happening right now
Google and Microsoft have done something amazing with the generative AI revolution: They’ve made it ubiquitous and almost boringly familiar almost at a stroke by embedding these amazingly powerful tools in devices and software we use constantly.
Genesis, the name for a three-tiered set of what amount to powerful answer-giving machines and an impossibly clever assistant in your pocket, gives Google a chance to rebound from having been somewhat blindsided by the success of Open AI and its partnership with Microsoft.
It may also have big implications for how news organisations respond to their readers, having access to even more information without the mediation traditionally carried out by media.
“This is your reminder that pretty soon everyone is going to have an LLM in their pocket, potentially remediating every piece of content a user consumes. Are media organisations ready for that future?” Nicholas Diakopoulos, professor of computational journalism at Northwestern University and a genuine expert in using generative AI in newsrooms, asked on X.
The Google announcement on Genesis makes clear we will all have AI with us all the time. Whether a Google product or a Microsoft CoPilot in Word, Excel, or on Bing, we are about to find that generative AI is as ubiquitous if not more so than Google Search has ever been.
As Diakopoulos suggests, the implications for news organisations are big but also hard to predict. We know newsrooms and all parts of publishers are rushing to test, try, and implement AI to help with storytelling, research, routine tasks, and marketing. But now we have to grapple with a fundamental shift — yet again — in how our readers will find and consume information.
If our customers have access to everything and to the best of everything, how does our role as curators and originators of information change?
The phenomenon of generative AI becoming almost boringly ubiquitous — and in record time — came up in this week’s INMA Newsroom Initiative Webinar, featuring top independent technology analyst Benedict Evans. Benedict illustrated the S-curve of technology adoption where products went from puzzling, to exciting, to “boring” — by which he means everywhere.
Generative AI tools driven by vast large language models which digested almost the sum of human knowledge were racing to adoption faster than any technology before it.
For news publishers, many of whom are already seeing a fall in core search traffic as AI creeps into Google search, Benedict had an alarming wake-up call or warning: the end of links. If there are no links to your content, then the entire architecture of news discovery breaks. Salutary.
INMA has great resources on the whole question of generative AI, including:
- Nicholas Diakopoulos on newsrooms and AI in a Webinar.
- INMA coverage of my webinar with Benedict Evans.
- Report: News Media at the Dawn of Generative AI.
- INMA Knows AI and the Newsroom.
Let me also recommend a book and a piece in The New Yorker broadly on these subjects: The Maniac, by Benjamin Labatut, a fictionalised but superbly researched and readable take on the history of computing and its father, John von Neumann, with a twist at the end that will help anyone understand the implications of Artificial Intelligence.
The New Yorker article is The Inside Story of Microsoft’s Partnership with OpenAI by Charles Duhigg and will help you cut through the noise on the fiasco around the sacking of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and how Microsoft is determined to come out on top in the AI wars.
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.