MarketWatch’s Swartz Analyzes AI, Journalism and Tech Friction

October 4, 2023

Journalism has gone through a lot of changes in recent decades, and with the rise of artificial intelligence, it appears that media organizations and journalists will be forced to change again.

A recent development signaling change is Google news summary feature, which is based on AI.

In our quest to keep ourselves, our clients and community informed about the latest news, views and journalist opinions on what’s really happening in AI technology, and with content creators and media outlets, tech and business, we convened a Bospar Press Play webinar.

“How AI in Search is Changing Journalism” brought together Bospar’s Eric Chemi, a former CNBC and Bloomberg reporter, with leading journalists Jon Swartz, a senior reporter at MarketWatch who covers many of the biggest players in tech, including Facebook, Google and Netflix, and Sharon Goldman – a VentureBeat senior writer who covers the enterprise AI news beat, to analyze the Google news summary feature, AI models, AI generated news, search queries, Bospar’s research, journalism’s slowness to adapt to technology, and what might happen next.

Here’s an excerpt of what Jon had to say. Our blog based on Sharon’s comments is coming soon.

What has the conversation among content creators in your newsroom in the last three months when people learned search engines are now going to start using AI technology to do the thinking for them so that readers don’t even need to click on the media link anymore?

Jon: I knew I was in a new world when I was reading a story a couple of months ago. It was a college basketball story, and I thought it was a pretty good story. But I thought ‘Who would cover this obscure conference and this obscure tournament?’ And I realized, when the story came to the end, it said that this AP story was generated by AI.

That kind of scared me because, in a sense, it gives me the impression that we are replaceable. And there has been chatter, we actually had a panel involving a number of journalists a few months ago in which a couple of the editors were open to the idea of using AI exclusively in place of the reporters. So, in terms of content creation, it’s always top of mind for me.

I’ve been writing about the Hollywood writers’ strike, and just talking to the writers there’s definite fear among them. If you’re a wordsmith or someone who’s a storyteller, we’re afraid of the possibilities – the possibilities over the next couple of years are going to be frightening.

I came across a study by Morgan Stanley yesterday that showed the AI-related economy and its impact on the labor market. It’s going to be a $4.1 trillion market in about three years – double what it is now – and it’s going to affect 44% of the workforce.

So, it’s inevitable. We’re surrounded by it.

It’s going to take over our lives. It’s taking over my job, especially in the last six months.

It’s basically created a hierarchy of SEO that’s much more important than the content that you’re writing. And to me that is a sad turn of events.

Hopefully we can use AI as a tool rather than as an adversary.

You mentioned the writers’ strike in Hollywood. Much of the media’s conversation was about AI. It raised questions such as: How are we going to get compensated for this? For a lot of these news outlets, advertising is what pays the bills, including paying content creators.

Jon: Technology is bane for some writers because of what happened with streaming in terms of compensation. They felt they got the short end of the stick. And they did.

There was a bit of a concession in the writers’ strike. Still, there’s this possibility that they’re going to work side-by-side with AI. There’s this concern they refer to as the Nora Ephron [Problem], where if you input enough scripts from Nora Ephron, the bot is going to be able to create a script that is somewhat analogous or similar to something that she would’ve done.

That’s their fear. They’ve accepted the idea that these formulaic TV shows or even these blockbuster comic book adventures can be replicated by a bot…. But now they’re fearing that sophisticated, narrative, rich stories with deep characters are going to go the same way.

I mentioned the AP story about basketball. Well maybe there’s going to be a long, deep feature… an award-winning story of some sort, an investigation. I don’t rule it out entirely.

I’m being a little paranoid, maybe.

But it’s moving faster, I think, than even the creators think it should.

We just saw that you can opt out of Google AI but still rank on Google Search. If I were still a journalist, I would want all of my articles to be ingested by all of the large language models (LLMs). If you’re publishing at MarketWatch, do you want the LLMs to ingest your stories?

Jon: It’s very unpredictable. It’s like a moving target.

Satya Nadella [of Microsoft] yesterday was testifying that … Google search was so hard to crack.

I guess in a sense it puts Google in a really weird position because they are at least trying to mollify regulators and lawmakers that they are going to make efforts. I think that they are trying to be more responsible in terms of political advertising. They’re going to try to oversee that and make sure that deepfakes don’t course throughout their service.

Here where I work, especially at Dow Jones, we’re much more dependent on SEO. Traffic is an obsession. It’s been an obsession everywhere for the last several years, to the point where your traffic is being tracked.

At USA Today, I’ll be blunt and tell you that stories were judged purely on the traffic.

The content was totally secondary. I noticed that in the last couple of years I was there, and I was there for 20 years. The last couple years it was fraught with this totally superficial viewpoint of the world. ‘Oh, there’s an eclipse! Let’s do 10 stories that say the same thing about the eclipse because it keeps driving the traffic. Oh, that other news story, that’s not as important.’

That’s the reality of the situation. And that, in a sense, hurts the publication because readers eventually only focus on that one topic and become inured of the rest of the content. Then, consequently, you’re losing your audience, and that makes you even more desperate. So, they decide they need to have a Taylor Swift beat reporter or a Beyonce beat reporter to drive traffic.

So, that’s the reality – this obsession with the headline, the lede.

It’s a bad, bad path to take. I think it’s being accelerated by AI in a sense.

I hate blaming AI for all of society’s ills… because it’s actually a great tool. I think it could be a tremendous tool for reporters. I think it’s one of the best things we have since the internet in terms of research and finding things. But SEO has kind of become the bane of my existence.

I’ve been doing this a long time, and I just don’t like to see in the newsroom and the meetings everything is overridden by this obsession with the immediate gratification of the traffic.

The title of Sharon’s story was literally “Forget SEO, Why ‘AI Engine Optimization’ May Be the Future.” Could this kind of optimization solve the problem that you’re talking about?

Jon: Exactly. It could be a solution to an ill, eventually. That’s if we navigate this the right way.

The problem in journalism – and I’ll say this from working at newspapers, magazines, online sites – is that we are doing a really bad job of bringing in technology and using it effectively.

We don’t know how to do it.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have the best IT experience. Newsrooms traditionally never quite understood the internet, never quite understood the use of video. Everyone thought stories and traffic would be driven and we could draw readership through these video projects. That never really took off. The paywall idea. Technology’s always been this kind of slippery animal that we can’t get a grasp on. And I’m afraid that maybe we bungled this one again. I hope I’m wrong.

But history is a pretty good indication that the field of journalism, and accepting and adopting technology, don’t actually work very well together or traditionally haven’t.

Will having AI technology aggregate news eliminate the strategy of doing 10 eclipse articles?

Jon: I hope so. This was like 2015-17. There was definitely this sense of panic that had overtaken the news media.

Most media organizations now have somebody who specializes just in SEO. We have a group here at Dow Jones that does that. I’m sure at most newspapers there’s an army of people.

It’s as important as the best copy editor you have or the best investigative reporter. You rank them near the top, if not at the top, in terms of importance in a news organization now because they are your survival mechanism.

We ran a survey to get the public’s opinion on AI and search. Instead of clicking through, the answers are right there for you. 64% said that’s appealing because they never read the full article, just read the headlines to save time. 69% want all news summarized in one location.

Jon: Remember back even 20 years ago when Yahoo tried to aggregate the news?

We’re kind of going full circle.

Bospar’s research also indicates that 65% liked the idea of search queries becoming more like social media where content is more customized to your liking. That’s really high. I think people are saying it to be altruistic. And 76% said if Google can quickly summarize news articles all in one place, they would click on the full-length articles and read them as well.

Jon: I don’t believe that at all. [Sometimes] you get comments about something you wrote, and they say ‘I wish you would’ve mentioned this.’ And it’s in the story! They just gloss over it.

I hate to say it, but as we move forward, the audience gets smaller and more confused.

People are consuming more content than ever before and reading more information from more sources. They’re jumping from one thing, like TikTok to Facebook to an online news site they like… This is just the new reading habit. We don’t have time to consume all of it. But we consume more – just on a more superficial level. And there’s something to be said for that, you’re more well informed but perhaps not as deeply informed as you were before.

Our Press Play research also shows that 56% of the people we surveyed said they are worried that the use of AI in search will undermine journalism, 53% think Google currently has too much control over the news and 59% trust that Google’s AI search capabilities provide you with accurate information. The numbers for the concerns are lower than for the convenience. You have to wonder if that delta is what will force everything to start moving in that direction.

Jon: Yeah, they’ll eventually adopt it.

At this point, most people have not touched or seen AI. They think of it as this broad, nebulous theory… The same thing [happened] with the internet and lots of other technology. At first, they were ‘What is this?’ And eventually they learned how to use it.

In terms of trust, we’ve been inundated with Trump and this idea of fake news, trying to undercut the credibility of the news organizations that report about him and other people who do terrible things. But my fear during the election cycle is that there will be some sort of deep fake or even deep sound story that is inaccurately reported by the media.

I think back to the internet and some of these crazy stories and conspiracies that would circulate and which legitimate reporters fell for. Pierre Salinger, who was once press secretary for JFK and a great, legendary figure in journalism, fell for some sort of fake theory he saw on the internet. It kind of tarnished his image at the end of his career before he passed away.

I’m afraid that as these things become more sophisticated – and they are going to – that they [will become] like a tick [and] embed themselves in some story cycle.

There’s always been friction in terms of resistance among reporters and news organizations to adopt technology until they’re absolutely forced to do it. Because of that attitude, they got destroyed in terms of advertising by Google and Meta because of their close-mindedness.

They had a monopoly of sorts on news, and they sat on that for decades.

They never learned to adapt.

They don’t have any choice now.

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About the author

Paula Bernier is chief content officer at Bospar PR. She has more than 25 years of experience writing and editing for tech trade outlets, including Inter@ctive Week. Bernier is known for her ability to quickly produce compelling content on a wide range of business and technical topics. Areas of specialization include AI, cybersecurity and networking.