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With AI looming as a threat to news sites, publishers push back

A black and white image of a newsboy shouting into a bullhorn with an empty text field with a blinking cursor on it. He holds wireframes in the shape of newspapers.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

This year has already been a tumultuous one for the digital news media. On top of some shuttered publications and hundreds of layoffs throughout the industry, Generative AI (GenAI) has risen to be both a potential threat to and an innovative ally of journalists.

Meanwhile, Google is deprecating third-party cookies from its Chrome browser, which have long enabled news publishers to monetize their websites with revenue from ads. Further, Google Search is simply “less useful,” observes Emanuel Maiberg, who recently launched the independent news publication 404 Media with a group of tech journalists. He tells The Current that 404 stories often get buried under links to sites that are aggregating their own reporting.

It’s all part of “an increasingly messy and confusing information environment,” Maiberg tells The Current.

But there are reasons for optimism as some publishers adapt to this new — and challenging — environment. For a start, the end of third-party cookies can open opportunities for digital publishers to authenticate readers in an upfront, transparent way, allowing for a more direct relationship with them. Authentication can be as simple as a user logging in to a website or signing up for a newsletter. This change has the potential to create a better internet for journalism.

And while authentication can help digital news publishers preserve the value of ad impressions for its advertisers, it can potentially serve another purpose: combating possible threats from GenAI.

That’s what 404 Media has been doing. When they noticed that their articles were being repurposed by AI and published on other websites, they started requiring readers to log in with their email addresses.

“We see how Google is degrading in quality. We see how AI content mills are digesting our stories and gaming the system to get more views than our original reporting they’re ripping off,” Maiberg previously told Nieman Journalism Lab. “It’s important to us, and we think it’s important to our readers to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, but it’s also in the public interest to know what Google, AI, content mills, etc. are doing to the general health of the information environment.”

Creating a direct relationship with readers

404 Media was founded by four former reporters from Vice’s tech-focused Motherboard brand, which launched the site after Vice filed for bankruptcy last May. It’s just one of several journalist-owned and reader-supported digital media brands that have popped up in recent years amid turmoil in the larger news industry, taking control over the journalism they produce and breaking down the walls between them and their readers. Once again, disruption breeds opportunity.

“We started 404 Media so we can be in charge of the business,” Maiberg says. “That’s why we can wake up one morning, realize we would really benefit by transparently asking for readers’ emails and immediately make that change.”

Video game-focused site Aftermath is another such publication, launched last year by former journalists of gaming news outlet Kotaku. Aftermath, too, encourages users to log in for free when they access articles (after three free articles, readers are asked to sign up for a paid subscription).

Gita Jackson, co-founder of Aftermath, echoes how important it is to build a bridge between the publication and its readers, especially when they are so interested in and savvy about a topic like AI-generated work.

Readers “want to follow a group of people that they have fostered a relationship with so that they can confirm that their information is coming from people and not machines,” Jackson tells The Current via email.

Long-term solutions are still necessary

James Rosewell, co-founder of the Movement for an Open Web and CEO of 51Degrees, cautions that authentication might be a short-term solution when it comes to potential AI threats, and that broader, long-term solutions are necessary.

“The business case for implementing [authentication] should be based on needing to know who your reader is and for both parties to gain a benefit from that relationship,” Rosewell says.

He adds that larger news publishers with appropriate resources can help the larger industry by negotiating with AI companies to develop technical and legal standards. They can also engage with lawmakers to ensure that regulation covers AI in the digital market. The New York Times has even sued OpenAI and Microsoft over the use of published work to train AI. (To be fair, The New York Times and other media outlets are also testing how to use AI in ways that benefit their newsrooms.)

But for now, smaller digital news publications can navigate a transforming internet by forming stronger bonds with their readers in a transparent way.

“This is the time for media organizations to act and to try to win back audiences by creating more direct relationships via newsletters, live events, podcasts and master classes,” says Hilke Schellmann, an assistant professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of the book The Algorithm about AI.

She adds, “With AI content mills on the rise and low-grade information polluting the information environment, I hope that audiences will realize how important factual information is.”