On the 25th of May 2023, a half-day symposium on the use of AI in news organisations took place within the serene setting of Balliol College, seeking to foster discussions between industry experts, academics, and students.
Organized and moderated by Felix M. Simon of the Oxford Internet Institute, the eventfeatured three panel discussions on ‘AI in the Workplace’, ‘AI, News, and the Role of the Technology Sector’, and ‘AI and the Implications for Public Discourse’ The event was funded by the TORCH Minderoo Challenge Fund in AI Governance and received generous administrative support from the Oxford Internet Institute and Balliol College.
Participants included leading experts on AI and the news, including Shreya Vaidyanathan, Product Manager at Bloomberg LP; Jane Barrett, Global Editor for Media News Strategy at Reuters; Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan, Banking and Fintech Correspondent at the Financial Times; Melissa Heikkilä, Senior Reporter for AI at MIT Technology Review; Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism; David Caswell, Executive Product Manager at the BBC; and Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist. The diverse audience comprised journalists, policy experts, technology specialists, and students from the University of Oxford and beyond, contributing to a rich and multifaceted exchange of ideas.
As the event was held under Chatham House Rule, this brief summary provides a collective perspective, with a more extensive report to follow.
Looking Beyond Generative AI in the News
The speakers highlighted how AI in news organizations extends beyond generative AI and encompasses a wide range of applications. For example, AI is increasingly used for high-speed data extraction and analysis, in investigative journalism, as well as for optimizing existing news products and creating new ones. A significant portion of AI implementation is focused on non-audience facing tasks, such as organizing archives and content (although AI also looms large in the recommendation of content and the optimization of paywalls).
One connecting them was that claims regarding efficiency and productivity gains through AI should be approached with caution, as the extent of these gains varies depending on the specific task and context. While efficiency gains may be more straightforward in e.g. coding, they are not as easily achieved in tasks such as writing or reporting. In fact, the use of AI can sometimes lead to additional work for journalists and news workers. Some speakers also highlighted that the fear of job replacements by AI is not a simple binary scenario. Jobs in journalism consist of a combination of tasks, only some of which can be automated. This realization should provide some reassurance for journalists, as it indicates that their roles are not entirely replaceable by AI.
No Easy Way Out of Big Tech’s Dominance Over AI
During the discussion on news organisations’ dependency on the technology sector for AI, participants engaged in a lively exchange of ideas. A key point raised was the dominance of Silicon Valley-based technology companies in AI research and development. These companies were likened to ‘landlords’ by one panellist as they exercise control over crucial resources such as data, computing infrastructure, and substantial financial and human capital, thus both shaping and controlling large swathes of the AI ecosystem. In contrast, smaller start-ups like OpenAI were described as ‘tenants’ heavily reliant on these larger firms for their AI development.
Another participant emphasised how big tech companies not only drive the adoption of AI but also already exert control over access to news audiences and traffic to news sites — something that potentially stands to be extended as AI is rolled more broadly. ‘Users have voted with their feet already’, gravitating towards the convenience and user-friendly experiences offered by these platform companies, solidifying their position in the news ecosystem. A shared concern in this context was how this broader development would not only affect news organisations’ business models but also the information ecosystem at large.
The panel acknowledged that the development and implementation of AI would further consolidate the power of these companies unless proactive measures were taken. However, there were diverging opinions on the appropriate course of action and the responsible parties involved. Suggestions included strengthening competition and data protection laws, although it was acknowledged that regulators often struggle to keep pace. Additionally, panellists stressed the importance of news organisations confronting these challenges directly and proactively.
‘Listen to the Generalists, Not Just the Computer Scientists’
The closing discussion involving Tom Standage of the Economist, Felix Simon, and the other participants and attendees synthesised the key themes explored throughout the day, while also offering broader insights into the future of AI, news, and information ecosystems.
One topic of discussion was the potential democratisation of AI through open source models, which can provide powerful functionalities at a low cost. It was also noted that we may not have reached the full potential of Large Language Models, suggesting that further advancements are still on the horizon. Another perspective presented was that in an increasingly noisy information environment flooded with cheaply produced content of questionable quality, the value of publishers as trusted brands may rise — an optimistic view of AI’s impact.
However, the central point of the closing remarks emphasised the difficulty of making accurate forecasts about the future of AI and its impact and cautioned against overstating the likelihood of major risks associated with AI. The audience was encouraged to consider insights from generalists, not solely relying on computer scientists who develop AI.
For questions, please feel free to reach out to Felix at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Felix M. Simon is a journalist, communication researcher, and doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), a Knight News Innovation Fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and an affiliate at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) .