News Corp’s Robert Thomson discusses AI’s potential, negotiations with Big Tech
World Congress Blog | 25 May 2023
As CEO of News Corp, Robert Thomson has negotiated news-sharing deals with Google in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom at a time when the media world continues to grapple with the question of how Big Tech should compensate publishers for content.
Meanwhile, the sudden rise of generative AI has once again changed the landscape of digital journalism dramatically.
At INMA’s World Congress of News Media on Thursday, Thomson shared some of his thoughts on how the latest developments are forcing publishers to adapt quickly.
Becoming “AI alchemists”
“The quest to protect provenance has entered a fresh phase ... with the rapid evolution of generative AI, which certainly has the potential to be degenerative AI,” Thomson said. “The task for all here is to ensure that we are AI alchemists and that it becomes regenerative AI.”
He spoke with Robert Whitehead, INMA’s Digital Product Initiative Lead, about the risks and opportunities of AI, how publishers must advocate for fair compensation, and how memes prove there are some human preferences that algorithms just don’t understand.
Like many media leaders, Thomson sees great potential for AI to improve efficiency and optimisation in the newsroom and in the journalism business in general.
But he also sees generative AI as a real threat to journalism in three main ways: Content is being harvested and scraped to train AI engines, individual stories are being surfaced in specific searches, and original journalism can be synthesised and then presented as distinct in the form of “super snippets.”
“These contain all the effort and insight of great journalism, but they’re designed so the reader will never visit a journalism Web site, thus fatally undermining that journalism,” Thomson said.
An important thing to realise about AI, he said, is that it’s fundamentally retrospective — it only works because it is able to mine existing content: “Otherwise it’s just Wikipedia on amphetamines.”
At this point, there are no clearly defined principles surrounding AI yet, and Thomson doesn’t believe government regulation will come any time soon. That’s why it’s crucial for journalists and media companies to stay vigilant now in advocating for their own interests— so they are paid fairly for original content.
“One of my concerns is that AI could become the preserve of techies rather than the domain of us all,” Thomson said.
Negotiating with Big Tech
His own negotiations with Google can serve as a model for how media can fight to be compensated for producing the content from which Big Tech benefits. Thomson said he hopes News Corp’s deal will act as a “rising tide,” for the journalism business and that it will give other media companies something to leverage.
“It’s meant to create ecosystems, not singular entities with sweetheart deals,” he said. “I was hoping it would make a huge difference globally.”
Thomson also talked about how human intuition is an element that will never be replaced, and that the memes that get the attention of his two sons — who are in their 20s — go to illustrate how the ideas and humor at the root of original content are not something that can be artificially generated or packaged.
“It’s about wit and pithiness and relevance, rather than the format,” he said. “It’s what you do with the format, not the format itself that matters.”
Human intuition will also always be important in making business decisions, and overlooking that comes at a cost. One example is the way media companies got it wrong in thinking ebooks would be the next big thing. At one point, their growth seemed unstoppable, with their growth line going up “like a hockey stick,” he said. But what wasn’t clear from projections was that many readers still like books as something tactile that they can hold in their hands.
“The lesson is that it’s important to remain empathetic,” he said. “And to think about how, why, when, and what people like to read, and to be constantly reviewing judgments because everything changes so fast.”