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‘What’s in it for us?’ journalists ask as publications sign content deals with AI firms
June 24, 2024

‘What’s in it for us?’ journalists ask as publications sign content deals with AI firms

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Vox Media’s president, Pam Wasserstein, sent her staff a Slack message and an email on May 29 detailing what the company’s journalists say was shocking news: Vox had signed a content licensing deal with OpenAI.

The deal gives the AI company access to Vox’s current content, as well as the entire archive of its journalistic work, to train ChatGPT and other models. Wasserstein sent the alerts just moments before Axios published an exclusive detailing the licensing and product deal, much to the surprise of her journalists.

Writers at The Atlantic, which signed a similar deal with the Microsoft-backed AI giant, weren’t even given a heads-up. 

‘Atlantic staffers have largely learned of this agreement from outside sources, and both the company and OpenAI have refused to answer questions about the terms of the deal,’ reads a May 30 statement from The Atlantic Union. 

Both Vox Media — which includes The Verge, New York, Eater, The Cut and more publications — and The Atlantic have published pieces that are critical of OpenAI and generative AI. They have aired concerns about the environmental impact of the power needed to run large language models, the board upheavals at OpenAI, and the ‘general lack of trustworthiness’ in the company, said Amy McCarthy, a reporter at Eater and communications chair of Vox’s union. 

Vox did not respond to a request for comment. 

Since the deals were announced, journalists at each publisher have wrangled meetings with business-side higher-ups to learn more about the agreements, looking for one crucial piece of information: What’s in it for the journalists?

A sense of urgency

In the face of an increasing number of AI media deals, news guilds are now notching up the pace of negotiations to put in place AI protections similar to the ones Hollywood writing teams fought for

This means publishers that strike deals with AI providers might be contractually required to engage in discussions and negotiations with unions about these changes. 

During negotiations this month, The Atlantic’s union put forward a proposal, per which AI wouldn’t be used to replace writing, fact-checking, copy editing and illustration. It also proposed that writers can use AI at their discretion, in accordance with journalistic principles and ethics, but they can’t be made to use it. That proposal is yet to be accepted. 

Other unions are working to put in similar protections. Nebraska journalists at the Omaha World-Herald Guild secured protections from AI earlier this year. In 2023, after CNET published a series of AI-generated articles, journalists at the publication went public with their union drive, demanding AI protections and a say in how AI is implemented in employee workflows. 

Making companies include such safeguards in journalists’ contracts is vital, because protection from the law isn’t guaranteed. Companies like OpenAI contend that they’re not breaking copyright laws by scraping what they say is publicly available content. They also say their chatbots don’t reproduce the material in its entirety. 

But publications like The New York Times, Raw Story, AlterNet and The Intercept have all sued OpenAI for using copyrighted works by journalists to train ChatGPT without properly crediting or citing the sources. Novelists, computer programmers and other groups have also filed copyright suits against OpenAI and other companies building generative AI. 

Richard Tofel, former president of nonprofit newsroom ProPublica and a consultant to news outlets, thinks these lawsuits will end up in the Supreme Court. If the courts rule that OpenAI and others are guilty of copyright infringement, ‘they’ll need to make a deal with everybody.’

Tofel thinks most publishers will end up making deals with AI companies. He noted that Google also faced similar copyright suits back when its search product was taking off, but by the time those were settled, users were so dependent on search that no publisher wanted to keep its content out of it. 

McCarthy says writers can’t rely only on the courts: ‘We have to look at every potential avenue as a way to push back against AI implementation.’

Another concern for journalists is the adoption of AI by publishers for writing content, which some media outlets have already begun experimenting with.

CNET and Gannett have published AI-generated stories and art, and in the case of Sports Illustrated, under fabricated bylines. Those stories were called out as AI-generated mainly because they were riddled with factual errors, but if AI gets a free pass to train on good journalism, those obvious errors may decrease over time. 

If journalists won’t question this, who will?

Journalists understand the basic structure of the deals, but they still have questions. 

The Atlantic’s VP of communications, Anna Bross, said the company’s partnership positions it as a premium news source within OpenAI, similar to other publishers’ deals.

Bross noted that this is not a syndication license, meaning that OpenAI doesn’t have permission to reproduce The Atlantic’s articles or create similar reproductions of whole articles or lengthy excerpts. 

The Atlantic’s editorial staff brought up that topic at an all-hands meeting in mid-June, headed by the publication’s CEO Nick Thompson, and they learned that while ChatGPT will be getting access to their work, the edit team is otherwise ‘fairly insulated from it.’ 

In other words, there’s not an immediate threat of ChatGPT being used to write articles. 

The financial terms of The Atlantic and Vox deals still elude journalists inside and outside the publications, but we know that they are two-year contracts and will also include the use of OpenAI technology for building products and features. OpenAI says that its tech will not be used to mimic writers’ own voices.

News Corp, The Wall Street Journal’s parent company, has also signed a deal with OpenAI that’s reportedly worth more than $250 million over five years. Axel Springer, which runs Politico and Business Insider, has also joined hands with OpenAI in a deal reportedly worth tens of millions of euros

Other media outlets that have already signed similar partnerships with OpenAI include Dotdash Meredith (publisher of People, Better Homes & Gardens, Allrecipes, Investopedia and more), The Associated Press, The Financial Times, Le Monde in France, and Prisa Media in Spain. 

OpenAI claims its agreements will help journalists by driving traffic back to their articles, but that remains to be seen as the implementations aren’t yet live. 

Tofel said that if users can ask an AI chatbot for the latest on the Israel-Hamas war, for example, it would present ‘the ultimate nightmare for the news companies.’ 

‘They could be very significantly disintermediated by an AI news product,’ he said.

OpenAI was not able to confirm specifics about the user experience design, which could determine how likely a reader is to click an external link to an article. 

And if readers don’t have to go to a publisher’s website to read articles, its ad revenue will suffer — that’s something the news industry is already struggling with as Google and Meta have deprioritized news in their algorithms. Journalists and writers will have a smaller audience for their work as well.

Journalism is suffering from a lack of funding, mostly because tech giants like Meta and Google today rake in the lion’s share of digital ad revenue. Publishers will no doubt welcome a new revenue stream to augment their balance sheets. 

But journalists are questioning whether this is the best way forward. 

‘It feels very much like a protection racket,’ McCarthy said. ‘Like we made a deal with the guy who just robbed our house, and he’s pinky promising that he won’t rob the house.’ 

Still, it looks like we can expect more deals like these in the future as publishers are all looking like they’ll come to the same conclusion: AI’s gonna steal our work anyway. Might as well get paid for it.


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