Fully Automated Luxury Newsmaking

Some thoughts on robots writing the news.

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The real future of newspapers is somehow even bleaker than this! Source

One of the more benign side effects of working in the media industry (benign compared to the utter lack of job security and the nightmarish working conditions for everyone in general and BIPOC in particular, I mean) is that it makes you a lot more aware of who/where content comes from.

So when someone sent me a link to a news story published on MSN.com the other day, I took note. Turns out, not only is MSN.com still very much “a thing,” but it’s also a major player in the news distribution game. And as of this month, its homepage—a digital bazaar of hard news and bad clickbait, aggregated from actual publishers—is being curated by robots. What could possibly go wrong?!

A dial-up descendant

Microsoft Network came into being in 1995 as Bill Gates’ entry to the dial-up internet service wars then being fought by America Online, NetZero, and the like. The service’s online offerings were organized around MSN.com; users visited the site to log into their email accounts, join chatrooms, and do… I don’t know, whatever the shit else we used to do on the internet before Comcast gave us all shitty broadband in exchange for effective exemption from antitrust enforcement, and Mark Zuckerberg weaponized social media to destroy American democracy.

Ah, simpler times.

Good and relevant websites for today’s news consumers always feature clickbait partner posts about skin spots and celebrities from eight decades ago, everyone says this. Source

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression, though: despite being out-of-fashion with Always Online media dorks like me, and boasting a homepage with all the visual order of a K-Mart flatscreen TV department on Black Friday, MSN.com is still a massive clearinghouse for digital news. It pulls in hundreds of millions of readers worldwide, and according to SimilarWeb.com, a digital media auditing firm, the URL is still the fifth-most read news site in the world.

The whole-ass world, you guys. On that same list, Yahoo’s US site ranks first; The New York Times comes in 18th; Fox News, 20th; and The Washington Post, a pitiable 38th. So even if you don’t have MSN.com set as your homepage, a lot of people do, and it’s where they get at least some of their news.

“AI has taken my job”

MSN.com doesn’t write its own news coverage. Instead, it cuts deals with other publishers (NYT, WaPo, and Fox News among them) to reproduce the original stories those outlets write under the MSN.com aegis. Thanks to the legacy site’s massive audience; the fact that MSN.com is the preset homepage on Microsoft Edge, the preloaded browser on most PCs; and the launch of the company’s News app, an Apple News competitor, a story can do orders of magnitude more traffic for Microsoft than it does on the publisher’s own site.

Are those eyeballs actually valuable? Who knows! But MSN.com slams a bunch of obnoxious ads and autoplay video in there, monetizes that traffic with ad revenue, and shares a cut with the outlet that created the content.

It’s a little greasy, treating the news-gathering efforts of hardworking journalists as nothing more than inventory to be thrown into the internet’s maw. But lord knows there are worse business models to be found in the media hellscape.

Anyway, until recently, the people curating the stories that showed up on MSN.com were… well, people. But a few weeks ago, Microsoft announced that it was going to lay off over 50 human editors in the US, and instead rely on artificial intelligence to select stories from outlets and repackage them for consumption on MSN’s homepage.

Microsoft News editors at their Mexico City “editorial hub” in 2018. Wonder if these people still work there! Source

In the UK, the company’s SANE division (literally: search, ads, News, Edge; figuratively: a very troubling acronym!) dropped its contract with its media firm, putting 27 editorial workers out of a job. Said one to The Guardian:

“I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs, and here I am – AI has taken my job.”

Cool and good industry we’ve got here, folks.

Automation comes for the news

This is the most recent instance of robots replacing media workers, and it comes at a time when 36,000+ of us have been bounced from newsrooms across the country, and countless others have left it by choice in search of greener pastures. But it’s not a new development.

Back in 2014, Facebook hired a bunch of journalists to curate its “Trending News” section (much like MSN.com’s own curation set-up, but adjacent to the news feed.) At the time, one of the workers told Gizmodo:

“It was degrading as a human being,” said another. “We weren’t treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”

Yikes. Many of those curators (who worked as contractors and weren’t given the cushy benefits Facebook gives its actual employees with, because of course) suspected that they were just there to train the platform’s algorithm to do the work in the future.

After a mini-scandal in 2016, in which the platform was accused of suppressing items from conservative outlets, those suspicions were more or less confirmed—the company laid off all its “content curators” and had A.I. take the reins on its trending section. That was an immediate disaster. It rehired humans to work on the product in 2019, then discontinued it entirely.

(That bias audit that the company conducted afterward, by the way? It was a survey of 133 Republican lawmakers and groups about their experiences on the platform that turned out to be “long on feelings and short on facts.” Shocked, was I.)

In other cases, AI is tasked not just with selecting stories, but actually writing them, too. Back in 2017, my friend Joe Keohane wrote about the Washington Post’s then-nascent efforts to build a newsbot, Heliograf, that would “generate explanatory, insightful articles” and lighten the load of the newspaper’s human reporters.

Speaking as a human journalist, I’d very much like a robot assistant to help me with research and data analysis for my stories! I’d be less keen, though, to have them completely replace me at work, for reasons including, but not limited to needing money to live, and wanting to feel like a productive member of society.

As far as I can tell, no one got laid off at the Washington Post because of Heliograf. The newsroom’s union cochair said at the time that he was “wary” but that the bot “seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work,” rather than threaten reporters’ livelihoods. (These days, the richest man in the world just does that himself!)

Is this all bad? Maybe!

Of course, how many reporters got laid off at local papers because the Washington Post’s news robot was undercutting them by shitting out stories and stealing local audience? Keohane, for Wired again, laying out WaPo’s strategy:

Instead of targeting a big audience with a small number of labor-intensive human-written stories, Heliograf can target many small audiences with a huge number of automated stories about niche or local topics. There may not be a wide audience for stories about the race for the Iowa 4th, but there is some audience, and, with local news outlets floundering, the Post can tap it.

Heliograf and its ilk were probably not great for those floundering local news outlets! But who knows for sure, because local newspapers were already getting rocked from like nine different directions anyway. Can’t blame robot-capitalism for everything!

Let’s get back to MSN.com. Perhaps you are thinking, Dave I’m sorry you and your colleagues are eventually going to be replaced by sentient refrigerators, but if the robots really can do the news better than you, then that’s progress, bay-bee!

I’m not against progress. Really, I’m not. But in addition sucking hard for journalists, this “progress” of enabling billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to get richer by replacing human labor with AI comes with costs that society will be forced to bear.

Here’s one: AI is not flawless! Its ability to learn human biases (around, say, race and gender) is well-documented. Plus, if it follows metrics slavishly, like it’ll presumably be taught to do, it will only reinforce white bourgeoise hegemony over mainstream media, which in turn reinforces white bourgeoise hegemony generally.

I’m no expert, but it seems a smidge irresponsible to hand robots the keys to massive routers of digital attention like MSN.com—or Facebook, for that matter—at a moment when our country is ripping itself apart over unhealed racial wounds partly enflamed by the rampant spread of misinformation online.

Maybe Microsoft will rethink its decision to axe those poor saps curating MSN.com’s news items, like Facebook did. After all, it took only a few days for its own AI to do some racism by mixing up two women of color in a story about… wait for it… racism!

Lol the racist computer couldn’t distinguish between these two, what an idiot. Source

The Guardian had the scoop on that, which included this hilariously dystopian passage:

In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.

Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.

What the hell are we even doing here, man? Why not just hire some journalists who are accustomed to making editorial judgement calls? We’re not even very expensive!

But maybe take a pass on whoever does photo selection over at Fox News.

P.S.: The subject line is a reference to Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a book I have not yet read (but plan to) on the utopian future the robots will deliver us, if we let them.
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