A content-crammed future

Journalism’s near-term future can go in two directions: Either bleeding-edge AI tools will take care of the mundane parts of reporting and writing, allowing journalists to dig deeper and produce better stories, or that same tech will accelerate the pace of publishing to complete inundation. We’re probably headed for the latter.

The AI tools deployed in modern newsrooms can write on their own. The Associated Press generates stories about corporate earnings and Minor League Baseball automatically. The Washington Post’s Heliograf writes all sorts of stories and accompanying tweets. Forbes is entering the future with a tool called Bertie.

All this tech could help journalists in plenty of ways. By freeing up time, it could let them pursue better and deeper stories. By handling a big chunk of day-to-day publishing, it could relieve some of the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle. It could also work side-by-side with journalists, dealing with the mundane or time-consuming tasks that get in the way of substantial reporting.

The last point deserves more attention, because it’s also one of the ways this whole endeavor could go south. From Digiday, here’s a little more about what Forbes’ new tool does:

“…(Forbes) rolled out a new CMS, called Bertie, which recommends article topics for contributors based on their previous output, headlines based on the sentiment of their pieces and images too. It’s also testing a tool that writes rough versions of articles that contributors can simply polish up, rather than having to write a full story from scratch.”

With this system, contributors log in, add some detail to the start of an AI-generated story, and hit publish. The contributor is free to spend the time they would have devoted to writing in pursuit of some deeper context, or to put together an infographic or video. Or, they can add the bare minimum that the story requires and move on to the next piece, cranking out exponentially more content in the process.

Those two options reveal two deeper philosophies about the purpose of a publication and the reporter’s role in it. In the first view, the news outlet is a generative entity, something that creates value in unique and surprising ways. In the second view, the publication’s function is closer to that of an assembly line: It takes raw material, packages it into stories, and publishes them as rapidly and at as high a volume as possible. The reporter’s job is to increase throughput. Those two directions also map neatly onto the competing business models in the industry right now: Do we want higher-quality, less-frequent content that brings in a paying audience? Or do we need to flood the internet at scale to keep our ad revenue up?

We’ll likely see a little of both, but the latter will be more prominent. Scale and automation are too enticing for the people who own, invest in, and run media companies to let the opportunity pass by. That means, as automation allows publishers to cover more things with less investment, we’re going to start seeing stories about everything. Every Trump tweet, every press release, every gadget Kickstarter will get an article, because the goal is to throw everything at the wall and collect profits off of what sticks.

Automation supercharges scale, bringing us faster toward a point where no more scale is possible. We can imagine a potential gray goo situation down this road, where the internet becomes nothing but mundane content, published every second, about ordinary things that just happened. Or a scenario where the pages on which to display ads outpace ad inventory by such a large amount that the programmatic market collapses. Scale will reach some kind of breaking point. It’s only a matter of which one. What are we going to run out of first: Reporting capacity, ad revenue, or things to write about?

PhD student @ Northwestern University. I worked in digital media, now I study it.

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