Google pitches media outlets on AI that can help produce news

Google is in discussions with news publishers about building and selling artificial intelligence tools that could help reporters and editors produce written journalism, a potential major acceleration of the practice of using automated tools to produce news content.

Google has been presenting the tools to news outlets since early spring, according to news executives present for meetings or later briefed on them. The product was pitched as possibly being able to collect information as part of newsgathering, write an early draft of a news story, and handle postproduction elements like writing social media posts, according to one executive who sat in on a pitch, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. Google suggested that the tool would be most appealing to local publishers.

News outlets are grappling with the latest “generative” AI tools like Bard from Google and ChatGPT from OpenAI that can write human-sounding text on any topic based on simple prompts and questions. Some news publishers have already employed the bots to speed up their ability to write lots of content quickly, spurring anxiety and anger from human writers. But the tools still make up false information and pass it off as factual, something AI experts say is an inherent part of how the technology works, raising doubts whether it can ever be trusted to write news stories.

“We have seen large-language models like ChatGPT and Bard produce factually incorrect information. Unleashing these models in the critical, and often time-crunched, field of journalism seems premature,” said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of its Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Jenn Crider, a Google spokesperson, confirmed the company was in discussions with news outlets with a focus on small publishers. The tools could provide different options for headlines or writing styles, with the goal of speeding up and improving how journalists work, Crider said. She compared the tools to AI features the company is adding to Gmail and Google Docs that automatically write emails, résumés or memos based on short prompts and questions entered by a human.

“Our goal is to give journalists the choice of using these emerging technologies in a way that enhances their work and productivity,” Crider said. “Quite simply these tools are not intended to, and cannot, replace the essential role journalists have in reporting, creating, and fact-checking their articles.”

The New York Times earlier reported that Google was pitching its AI product to news outlets. The news tool is code-named Genesis, and Google has had discussions with representatives from the Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the Times reported.

Times spokesperson Charlie Stadtlander declined to comment on whether the Times has had discussions with Google, referring instead to a memo Times Deputy Managing Editor Sam Dolnick and Chief Product Officer Alex Hardiman sent to employees on June 7. “We recognize the power, the potential and, importantly, the risks of generative AI tools both for the public and for journalism,” they wrote. “We also intend to stay at the forefront of identifying creative ways to deploy generative AI to advance our journalistic mission.”

Caitlyn Reuss, a spokesperson for the Journal, declined to comment. Kathy Baird, the chief communications officer of The Post, said, “A meeting took place this spring with Google to showcase their new tech, Genesis, and it included mostly Post executives from the Engineering and Business teams.”

News outlets should be wary of Google, said Jason Kint, the chief executive of Digital Content Next, a lobbying group for online news organizations. “The various tools which can be enhanced by AI are exciting and should be explored with an eye on the future,” Kint said. “At the same time, publishers should have their other eye on Google’s long history of harvesting their copyrighted material and their users’ data in a manner that maximizes Google’s own profits and interests.”

The latest crop of generative AI products has sent a shock wave of anxiety through content-producing industries such as art, film, music, marketing and news publishing. The bots, which have been trained on billions of words of text scraped from the open internet, are able to create human-sounding text based on simple prompts.

The generative AI tools are trained on content taken from the news outlets themselves, without payment or permission. A Post analysis of a data set used to train an earlier version of ChatGPT showed that news stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Post were major sources of training data for the bot. News outlets are part of a growing movement of content creators who argue that AI companies need to compensate those whose data they use to train their bots.

Last week, the Associated Press agreed to license its news archive to OpenAI in a deal that also gave the news organization access to OpenAI technology. The AP has been among a group of news outlets that have experimented with writing automated articles for years.

Some news organizations have already put chatbots to work writing news articles. In January, internet sleuths revealed the tech news website CNET published dozens of articles written by AI. The stories were littered with errors. One article on compound interest claimed a $10,000 deposit with 3 percent interest would earn the holder $10,300 in the first year of their investment, rather than the actual $300.

Google has a complicated relationship with the news industry. As the company rapidly grew through the first two decades of the 2000s, it gobbled up huge portions of the advertising industry, decimating the news business globally. Local and regional news outlets that relied on classified and local ads for decades saw their revenue crater, and thousands of them have shut down in the United States alone, leaving many towns without a news source beyond social media.

Larger news outlets pivoted toward online subscriptions, trying to avoid relying on an increasingly small share of the advertising market. In June, the largest newspaper chain in the country, Gannett, sued Google, claiming its dominance in digital advertising was further damaging the local news industry.

At the same time, Google search traffic is a lifeline for many news publishers, including ones who have subscription businesses. News outlets compete every day to have their stories show up higher in Google search results. Google has also been accused for years of cannibalizing traffic to news outlets by showing portions of articles directly in search results, a practice the company says helps its users.

For years, Google has tried to improve its reputation among news outlets by giving grants directly to local news and smaller publishers, as well as creating free tools like transcription software for news outlets to use. In some countries, governments are passing laws to require Google and Facebook to pay news producers directly for showing their content or portions of it on their platforms.

In Canada, a new law set to go into effect at the end of the year that forces the two tech giants to make payments to news outlets has become a major political flash point. Google and Facebook have said they would block Canadians from sharing links to news outlets, while the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused the companies of “bullying tactics.”

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