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AI to reshape news work and media business

AI will play a transformative role in reshaping news work, from editorial to the business side. Work processes that traditionally relied on human intuition are increasingly becoming suffused with or replaced by a technology imbued with ideas of rationality, efficiency, and speed. These are conclusions by Felix M. Simon, communication researcher at Oxford Internet Institute and Balliol College at the University of Oxford, presenting a study in Columbia Journalism Review.

The study is based on  interviews with news workers at 35 news organizations in the US, UK and Germany

However, for now AI mostly constitutes a “retooling” of the news rather than a fundamental change in the needs and motives of news organizations, he writes.

“It does not impact the fundamental need to access and gather information, to process it into “news,” to reach existing and new audiences, and to make money. The ways in which news organizations go about pursuing these needs has already been changed by digital technologies — and they will change further with the arrival and implementation of AI.” 

“News organizations that have been able to invest in research and development, devote staff time, attract and retain talent, and build infrastructure already have something of a head start when it comes to adopting new AI technologies and developing new products and services in meaningful ways. 

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“These “winners” are also in a stronger position to demand better terms when negotiating with platforms and technology companies, e.g. regarding the release of news content to train AI technology.”

He writes that as news organizations get reshaped by AI, so too will the public arena that is so vital to democracy and for which news organizations play a gatekeeper role. 

“Depending on how it is used, AI has the potential to structurally strengthen news organizations’ position as gatekeepers to an information environment that provides “people with relatively accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs” which they can use to make decisions about their lives. 

“For this to be achieved, news organizations must use AI to help them strengthen their business operations (thereby improving the conditions that make journalism viable and sustainable in the first place) and/or improve the quality of their output and the manner in which they serve their audiences (i.e. strengthen reporting and the provision of quality news).“

“This, however, is not a foregone conclusion. Instead, it will depend on decisions made by the set of actors who wield control over the conditions of news work — executives, managers, and journalists, but also increasingly technology companies, regulatory bodies, and the public.”

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Some other conclusions:

  • AI will be far from the only thing that shapes the news and the public arena in the coming years. Journalism does not change only through a single technology. 
  • Productivity gains from the use of AI in the news will not be straightforward. Technology often improves productivity, but only after long delays. 
  • The adoption of AI in news organizations will not be frictionless. Regulation, resistance from news workers, audience preferences, and incompatible technological infrastructure are just some of the variables that will shape the speed at which news organizations adopt AI, and, by extension, the rate at which AI’s tangible effects on news creation come into focus. 
  • AI will not be a panacea for the many deep-seated problems and challenges facing journalism and the public arena. Technology alone cannot fix intractable political, social, and economic ills. Political attacks will not stop because news organizations use AI. Audience habits and consumption patterns will not revert to those of a bygone era. 
  • The concentration of control over AI by a small handful of major technology companies will remain a key area of scrutiny. Neither established platform companies nor the fledgling start-ups developing (generative) AI necessarily care much for the concerns of publishers, or indeed the concerns of the public. They are large firms interested in concentrating information and making revenue by seeking efficiency gains and new business opportunities. But decisions these platforms make — about how AI gets used across the communication structures they control, who gets access to the technology, and the conditions under which that access is granted — will matter greatly. 
  • Developing frameworks to balance innovation through AI in the news — which is bound to continue — with concerns around issues like copyright and various forms of harms will remain a difficult and imperfect, but necessary task. 
  • As with any new technology entering the news, the effects of AI will neither be as dire as the doomsayers predict nor as utopian as the enthusiasts hope. AI’s power to shape society and institutions such as journalism will be subject to the contexts in which it is used. It will be limited by professional norms and resistance to the technology itself, as well as technical and organizational bottlenecks or “reverse salients” that for now hold back its technological momentum. But it would be wrong to assume that it is a passing fad. AI has already had an impact on journalism, the news industry, and by extension the public arena. This impact will only increase. But its true size and significance will only become clear with time.
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