Axel Springer CEO discusses OpenAI deal, how AI can improve journalism

By John Horstmann

City, University of London

London, United Kingdom


Under CEO Mathias Döpfner’s leadership, Axel Springer struck a deal late last year with OpenAI to be compensated for any Axel Springer content or data the large language models use to perform their tasks.

“I found it urgent that someone who wants to use our data has to pay for it,” he explained at the INMA World Congress of News Media in London last week. “I asked Sam Altman [OpenAI CEO] whether he would be up for such a deal and he said yes. We negotiated for two months and then we signed it. ”

The most significant aspect of that agreement, he said, is “the content delivery and the remuneration of that, because that is always based in the original content we create with the spirit [of our company].”  

Thinking back on his early experiences with AI, specifically the first time he used ChatGPT,  Döpfner experienced “the third moment in my business life that I would call an epiphany moment,” he told World Congress attendees.

“I got stunningly good and interesting answers. It was a watershed moment.”

The first two “epiphany moments” in Döpfner’s career came in 1995, when he realised digital would eventually take over print, and in 2011, when he recognised the iPhone would be the reading device of the future.

But AI, he said, might have the biggest impact of all.

“This is a generation of new answering machines that have the potential to either completely destroy media as we know them or bring us to a new level,” he said. “Either it’s the end or it’s a new beginning, and it really depends on us how this is going to develop.”

Identifying risks and opportunities

Döpfner sees both huge risk and potential for good in using AI for media companies. Rediscovering journalism’s deepest purpose and using AI to stay true to that is of the utmost importance to him.

“If we embrace large language models in the right manner, they can make our work cheaper and more efficient but also improve the quality of our work. This technology supports or even replaces a lot of workflow elements that used to belong to journalistic production like layout, re-writing, and aggregating.

“All of that can be done by bots, potentially even better by bots.”

It also can help save money, which can be used to fuel growth, he said:

“We have to make [our companies] cheaper and more efficient, and then reinvest the money into content and creation for humans to do something meaningful in journalism — to go somewhere no one has ever been, to find something that nobody has ever found out. 

“If we do that, then we rediscover the original essence of journalism.”

If news media companies use AI properly, they will be able to improve the quality of their work, Mathias Döpfner said.
If news media companies use AI properly, they will be able to improve the quality of their work, Mathias Döpfner said.

Succeeding with AI 

Döpfner outlined three main conditions for journalism to succeed and thrive from a business perspective in the face of AI.

Firstly, he urged attendees to use AI positively, telling them to “embrace the opportunities and draw the right conclusions.”

Secondly, he emphasised the need for regulation on how AI is used, stating, “copyright as know it is finished” and encouraging media companies to “stick together.” 

However, he is optimistic about efforts to regulate AI effectively: “Bots of that kind have the ability to undermine political institutions, political power, and democracy. I am optimistic [about regulation] because when it is about power, politicians are very sensitive. There is a sense of urgency.

“If we do our job — and address the topic and stay in close contact with the regulator — politicians will be helpful.”  

Rebuilding trust in the news

The third condition Döpfner outlined concerns journalists’ intellectual capacity and the effective use of it to be successful and increase readers’ trust in their organisations.

“Technological changes are always a challenge, but so many have used these to their advantage. So, it’s not so much about technology itself but more about our own behaviour and the credibility and trust that we provide to our readers, users and viewers,” he said.

Specifically, he urged media companies to re-emphasise the traditional values of journalism within their organisations, criticising what he perceives as an increasingly blurred line between journalism and activism.

“There is now an unclear separation between journalism and activism … . I am convinced that more and more media companies think they have to be in political camps. A journalist needs to be as unbiased, as nonpartisan, as unpredictable and as critical in all directions as possible.”

News companies must become “more informative than judgmental. Don’t tell your readers what to think. Tell them they can think for themselves,” Döpfner said. “People who trust a media brand will be faithful clients. If people lose trust, which is the current development, then we will be in trouble.” 

He stressed that this non-partisanship is at the core of Axel Springer’s mission, to not only maintain but further build trust among its audience: “That is our ambition.”

About John Horstmann

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