I stumbled into journalism by accident in the mid-1980s.
The Reagan recession was over, the newspaper business was expanding, and the next 15 years or so were good, darn good.
That was before Craigslist rustled our cash cow — classified ads. Before Google and Facebook ran off with the rest of our advertisers and readers. And before Alden Capital and GateHouse (now Gannett) went all vampire squid on distressed papers in small towns and big cities.
Next up: Big AI, a new generation of artificial intelligence systems that promises to do what journalists do, except with dazzling speed, and without taking vacation or demanding better coffee in the newsroom.
Over the weekend I asked one of the new chatbots, Google’s Bard, if he/she/they would soon be forcing me into retirement.
The answer: “AI is unlikely to make newspaper columnists obsolete in the near future. While AI can be used to automate some tasks, such as writing basic news stories, it cannot yet replace the human skills and judgment that are essential for in-depth reporting and analysis.”
That’s exactly the kind of gaslighting I’d expect from these chatbots. Still, the immortal Bard has a point.
Just because AI can quickly regurgitate anything it hoovers up from the internet doesn’t make it a journalist.
AI can’t learn a beat or win the trust of sources. It can’t go out into the world, talk to people, and tell their stories. Creating and editing — especially the part of an editor’s job that is more therapist than wordsmith — can’t be done by algorithm alone.
“I don’t think anyone believes that AI is going to write the next great Emmy-award winning zeitgeist show,” screenwriter Kim Benabib told the Globe’s Hiawatha Bray.
And nobody believes AI will produce the next Spotlight investigation.
But software can — and already is — producing basic numbers-driven stories such as sports recaps and stock reports. AI also can be used to generate more involved pieces. The writing is often book-report bland and the accuracy hit or miss, but quality will improve over time.
“A giant AI wave is heading toward the shore,” Casey Newton, editor of the tech-focused publication Platformer, wrote on Substack last week. “And whole categories of journalism that were once the province of entry-level and mid-career writers are about to be automated away, leaving their futures in question.”
Under constant financial pressure, some publishers won’t be able to resist relying on AI content, especially those whose business model is based on pumping out as much clickbait as possible to drive traffic. New companies will spring up just to become AI-content factories.
But wait, there’s more.
The New York Times reported last week that Google is pitching news organizations on an AI product that “could serve as a kind of personal assistant for journalists, automating some tasks to free up time for others.”
Talk about sleeping with the enemy.
At the same time Google is offering to make our jobs easier, it and other companies are scouring every inch of the internet — including the websites of news organizations — for material to train their chatbots and make them smart enough to put us out of work.
AI-generated content, made stronger by constantly feeding on the output of newspapers, could easily finish the job that Craigslist started. The same could happen to the creators of books, movies, TV shows, podcasts — you name it, and AI freeloaders prosper off the hard work and creativity of others.
Isn’t that a violation of copyright laws? Maybe, but as we’ve seen in the past, it takes the lumbering legal system and a constipated Congress a long time to catch up with tech breakthroughs.
So here’s the truly important question: What about me?
“As AI continues to develop, it is possible that it will eventually be able to replace some columnists,” Bard said, “but this is not likely to happen in the near future.”
I follow-up. What do you mean by near future?
“When I say ‘near future’ in the context of AI,” Bard replied, “I mean the next 5-10 years.”
OK, that would get me to retirement. But what about all the Gen Xers, millennials, and zoomers I work with?
“The prospects for younger journalists are bright,” Bard assured me. “AI is likely to create new opportunities for journalists.”
After what I’ve seen during 40 years in the business, my gut tells me I’m being gaslighted.