AI throws a lifeline to local publishers

The debate over the use of AI technology in journalism is heating up again after the release of the revolutionary ChatGPT Assistant, currently in its research preview phase.

If you haven’t had a chance to mess around with ChatGPT yet, I highly recommend it — you know, for science. Personally, I’m intrigued by its ability to generate documentation and planning materials. Things like workshop agendas, project outlines, and discussion overviews. The kind of stuff that, in most cases, nobody really puts a byline on or attributes to any specific individual.

But that really only scratches the surface of what this tool (and its inevitable successors and imitators) will be able to do in the future. For journalists and news organizations, this kind of leap in technological capacity presents almost as many ethical quandaries and questions (if not more) as it does possibilities and opportunities. And this one feels like a big leap.

I won’t get into the ethics here, since there are many people who are vastly more qualified than me to have that conversation. In fact, this is probably at least the fourth or fifth Nieman Lab prediction you’ve seen that focuses on this topic or some aspect of it.

Instead, I’ll talk about how I think this kind of tech could hypothetically impact small- and medium-sized local news organizations — particularly those with less than five full-time people on staff.

The ability to quickly generate documents, instructions, guides, and various elements of internal infrastructure could save independent and hyperlocal news publishers an incredible amount of time and effort.

Instantly generating summaries of public meetings and documents, creating tweets and social posts from news stories, drafting scripts for news broadcasts, even suggesting different headline variations — all at the click of a button — would be a game-changer for news organizations that are already strapped for people and resources. The same thing goes for generating invoices, public records requests, and even basic outreach emails.

That’s more time that could (and should) be spent reporting or engaging with community members. It could also help make local news content more accessible to people with disabilities, people who speak English as a second language, and people who might not usually come across local news stories in their current format.

Not to mention the implications of ChatGPT’s ability to generate code using natural-language inputs. Ask it to make something and it will (maybe) make it for you.

What’s wild is that all of those benefits and more don’t include what will happen when you pair ChatGPT with other tools and services, like Zapier or Notion.

The potential drawbacks and ethical concerns are equally obvious and perhaps more consequential, but many of them are ultimately tied to the way capitalism and the profit motive operate within and in opposition to public-service journalism. (Another topic that I’m more than happy to discuss at length, but won’t get into here.)

Regardless, this is a thing now. And the optimistic possibilities — along with their pessimistic and dystopian counterparts — are likely going to play a huge role in the future of journalism.

(Also, no, ChatGPT did not help me write this post — though I was very tempted.)

Joe Amditis is assistant director of products and events at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

Leave a Reply