Dispelling the myths of AI in the newsroom

By Paul Shanley, director of business development and partnerships, Associated Press
Author:
Publish date:

The use of artificial intelligence in the news industry is growing at an ever-increasing pace and, unlike many technology trends, real-world use cases abound. 

Deloitte reports that 82 per cent of early adopters of AI have seen a positive impact on their business, while the average return on investment across the media and entertainment sector is an impressive 20 per cent. Driven by a huge global technology spend increase, set to rise from $6 billion in 2018 to $28.9 billion in 2021, AI’s importance will only continue to grow. Major technology companies, from Google in the US to Tencent in China, have named AI as a key strategic focus for them. In many technology companies I’ve spoken to, AI is the number one focus for them.

And while as an industry we’ve moved beyond the initial hysteria of robots invading our newsrooms, there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty surrounding the impact that AI will have on news and most importantly, our livelihoods.

This article aims to tackle a few of the most common misconceptions I’ve heard from speaking with journalists and business professionals working in the news industry.

Myth #1: AI is a job killer

History suggests that technological change is a job creator rather than a job destroyer. As an example, McKinsey showed that the invention of personal computers had a positive net impact on US jobs, creating 15 million more jobs per year than it destroyed. Historical evidence suggests new technology equals increased productivity, increased spending and increased GDP.

The counter-argument to this is that the dynamics of the modern world mean that this time it will be different; the change will be quicker and all-encompassing. Workers won’t have time to upgrade their skills. Indeed, there is an abundance of evidence to show that technologically driven change achieves global adoption in ever reducing time periods.

Yet changes in China from 1990 to 2015, where one-third of Chinese workers moved out of agriculture, show that technology can transform an economy and at the same time reduce unemployment even within countries with rapidly growing populations. China is now among the world leaders in advanced technology industries, including artificial intelligence.

AI replaces tasks and skills over time, not jobs. What this means in practice is that as tasks are replaced by automation, workers have time to adapt and continue to add value in their role through higher-level tasks and skills. For this reason, AI may be better described as ‘augmented intelligence.’

Myth #2: The real value of AI is as a cost cutter

One of the most common perceptions of AI that I have come across is that senior management will use it to cut costs; taking advantage of automation to lower employee headcount and operating costs in a turbulent and difficult news market.

Far more important to the strategic direction of a company is AI’s role as a value creator.

PWC argue that by 2030, AI will contribute to an annual increased value in the Global Media and Entertainment sector of around $150 billion a year. This additional value will come from increased productivity, increased personalisation and increased quality. Senior management from leading companies are wise to this opportunity. After carrying out a survey of 3,000 US business executives, Boston Consulting Group reported that 72 per cent of respondents from companies considered ‘AI Pioneers’ say that business value from AI will mainly come from increased revenue.

The motivation for thinking this way, according to McKinsey, is simple: organisations who extensively adopt AI, viewing it as a fundamental contributor to value rather than a useful tool, will strongly outperform limited adopters of AI.

In addition, just as Buzzfeed and Vice Media identified the importance of social media and OTT to build new global media organisations, new AI focused entrants will lay claim to their share of the market from those that are slow to react. You only need to look at Bytedance’s success in China to understand the impact an AI-focused startup can have on the media market.

Myth #3: AI will make a journalists role more mundane

Among the concerns of journalists is the thought that AI will demote their role to the mundane, focusing on database management rather than content creation. All evidence though points to the contrary. AI has the potential to remove the mundane, streamline the cumbersome and erase repetition. In the words of Andrew Ng., co-founder of Google Brain:

"Just as the industrial revolution freed up a lot of humanity from physical drudgery, I think AI has the potential to free up humanity from a lot of mental drudgery."

Critical thinking, creativity, advanced data analysis, leadership, communication and negotiation, complex information processing and adaptability are all among the skills that are set to increase in demand in the future.

My own company, Associated Press, has first-hand experience of this beneficial feature of AI. In 2014, we integrated the first automated article writing software into our editorial processes (turning structured data into text articles) to automate the creation of earnings reports. We quickly moved from creating 300 earnings reports per quarter to 3,700 with automated software. Reports went out accurately and in record time.

Free from the usual time pressure to create earnings reports for our customers, journalists from this team could now focus on more investigative business articles surrounding these results. These reports require a higher skill level and better editorial judgement. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the number of automated earnings reports we completed and the number of investigative business articles we wrote. Our value to our customers has increased, the team’s roles have been enhanced and no one has lost their job as a result of this automation.

Myth #4: AI threatens editorial standards

A rightful concern, but one that is eminently preventable, is the impact of AI and automation on editorial standards and the threat to the trust placed on us by our audience that we have all fought so hard to maintain.

Technology changes our processes and workflows, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of journalism. AI can make your company more responsive to your audience, more engaging and more important, but it should never make you less trustworthy or reduce the quality of your work.

Technology has a habit of posing a problem and providing a solution. Just as trust in news has been eroded through false information distributed through social media, AI offers a potential solution to this. Fact checking, semantic analysis of text and video and quicker access to data are all very real use cases of AI that equip a journalist with more tools than ever to combat the wave of misinformation around the internet.

As newsrooms implement AI into their workflows, they need a clear ethical and standards process. Some newsrooms have given responsibility for AI integration to an individual standards editor, others have an ethics board. Whatever the route, this is an area of AI that should not be underestimated or under-resourced.

Conclusion

In dispelling these myths, I’m not aiming to paint an overly idealistic vision of the future or underestimate the difficulty of implementing AI into the newsroom. An AI strategy is not about integrating a few tools into your editorial workflows. To be successful, organisations will need to embrace a fundamental change in their working practices; integrating more agile ways of working, adapting the organisational structure to be less hierarchical and encouraging more cross-functional, project-focused collaboration.

The temptation to use AI to cut costs may have short-term gains, but those who do not fully embrace the potential of the value that AI can create, will, in the long run, likely be left behind by those that do.

Equally, journalists will need to commit to lifelong learning and embrace a continuous change process. Those more adverse to change and new ways of working will inevitably miss out on the opportunities that AI will present. Those who embrace this change will reap the benefits.

Related