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Publishers fear ChatGPT will ‘undermine the media industry entirely’

A persons hand reached out to a laptop screen as a digital, robotic hand reaches out on the other side of the screen.

Illustration by Holly Warfield / Getty / The Current

Type in any thought or question into OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, or Microsoft’s Bing and you’ll get paragraphs upon paragraphs of cleverly written responses being drawn from a variety of undisclosed sources from across the internet.

When The Current prompted ChatGPT to answer the question “Are chatbots a threat to news sites?” the response was crystal clear: “The adoption of AI chatbots could change the way users interact with news content, leading to a shift in ad revenue models that news publishers may not be prepared for.”

Publishers are indeed fearful about how AI chatbot technology could cannibalize their content and, in return, their revenue. While some hope these chatbots will bring about a new era of innovation, with customized reader experiences and data-based insights, others acknowledge the technology’s threats and limitations.

“If AI-driven search is not effective at driving traffic to original content, it has the potential to undermine the media industry entirely,” Nick Shelton, founder and director of Australian culture publication Broadsheet, tells The Current. “I’m hopeful that the relevant stakeholders — AI and search, industry, media industry, and governments — recognize what’s at stake and are motivated to align incentives.”

Chatbots could affect a publisher’s page views

Chatbot developers say the technology gives publishers advantages such as data-driven insights, better customer engagement, and personalized experiences. Chatbots can also quickly answer questions that readers search for online, potentially cutting into publishers’ search traffic for evergreen content. Search-based traffic could take a hit, and ad impressions and revenue along with it.

Publications’ ability to drive SEO with a trusted editorial voice and expertise will continue to be “crucial” to safeguard publishers against search competition, according to Sophia Wilcox, head of brand and culture at indie media house Urban List.

For example, Wilcox explains, publishers like Urban List are on the ground in their cities, searching for great new venues, products, and services. They’re building relationships with business owners and entrepreneurs, writing articles, and shooting videos before anyone has heard about them or knows to “search” for them. Chatbots can’t see what’s coming — “that’s our advantage,” she says.

“There will always be a need and a place for excellent and original content, great interviews, and editor-led, trusted recommendations,” she adds.

The major limitation of chatbots or large language models is their inability to anticipate emerging trends, cultural shifts, and movements. They can only respond with and provide insights on past events, and lack real-time access to internet content, which hinders their effectiveness, says Wilcox.

“Some publishers provide something ChatGPT can’t: trust,” she explains. “This trust gives readers the confidence in the buying-and-booking choices they make. Trust will remain something a chatbot can’t replicate.”

If a publisher asked ChatGPT to write an article on the best Italian restaurants in Sydney, for example, the chatbot cannot distinguish between restaurants that get a lot of web traffic and those adored by culture seekers. In other words, it spots quantity better than quality, giving in-the-know publications like Urban List a leg up.

Even if someone conducts their initial search on ChatGPT, discerning foodies will still need to validate whether the restaurant will appeal to their personal tastes, not to mention if the establishment is even open. To date, ChatGPT only accesses data up to 2021.

Publishers could reap advantages from chatbots powered by AI

Wilcox notes, however, that if chatbots take over the role that Google search currently plays, it may not be bad for all publishers, citing there are potential positives to the role it can play within the sector.

“Publishers should see an opportunity to capture more commercial and audience market share, as platforms whose content is more at risk of being cannibalized by AI and the changing search environment [may] lose click-through traffic and associated advertising spend,” says Wilcox.

“Because of the highly changeable cultural environment that a platform (like Urban List) covers, the specificity of the content, and the high levels of opinion and curation involved, AI technologies will most likely serve to elevate brands like Urban List,” she says.

While it’s far from clear how search and traffic referral are going to look in the future, what is clear is that generative AI is going to force a huge evolution of the industry. From a regulation standpoint, Wilcox believes that the tech giants and government regulators “must move with pace to ensure that all publishers are protected and the content they produce is not aggregated and distributed for free.”