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Semafor’s AI Partnership Is The Same Old Shit

The OpenAI logo is being displayed on a smartphone, with the Microsoft logo visible on the screen in the background.
Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Semafor, a news website for people who are too dumb to read The New York Times but too smart to read Axios, announced this week a partnership with Microsoft’s artificial intelligence chatbot. Semafor editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who launched the site with the stated goal of “reducing polarization,” sees Microsoft's chatbot as a tool with which to solve another problem that allegedly plagues the news business: The freakin’ news breaks too freakin’ fast!

In an interview with the Financial Times and a post on Semafor’s website, Smith and executive editor Gina Chua outline how exactly Semafor will be putting this chatbot to use: The website has launched a section called Signals, which is described as a “global multi-source breaking news feed” that will be written by human journalists “aided by AI tools that help them search news sources across multiple languages and geographies.” Signals is meant to produce about a dozen posts per day.

As is usually the case when tech and media companies partner up and start talking about exciting new initiatives, there's nothing all that innovative going on here. “Global multi-source breaking news feed” is just a pompous description of a standard news wire. The posts that populate the feed are examples of basic news aggregation, a practice that has been a part of journalism for decades. Click around the Signals feed and you’ll encounter the kind of stories—short, aggregated stories—that should be familiar to anyone who was spent more than a day reading the news. Does a three-paragraph story about an anti-aging pill for dogs that cites The New York Times, the BBC, and Yahoo Finance strike you as an innovative piece of digital news?

While reading Signal posts, it’s also hard to discern how Microsoft’s chatbot is actually contributing. Smith told the FT that Signals would use AI as a “research tool to inform posts” written by Semafor staffers, and in his post on the site mentioned that editors, after “tapping into these AI research tools” will “evaluate and verify sources, compose summaries, and clearly cite and link readers to the original information.” Again, this is a lot of words to describe what is already a well-established journalistic practice: researching and writing posts. Search engines and press wires have already made that process relatively simple. Did the author of that post about the anti-aging pill for dogs really need artificial intelligence to help her find information presented by the Times, BBC, and Yahoo?

Semafor is of course being paid by Microsoft to make use of this chatbot, which makes all of this feel very familiar. A good question to ask whenever a media company rolls out a shiny new product is: Which came first, the product or the money? In other words, did Semafor launch Signals—which will now demand time and energy from its staff necessary to pump out a dozen short aggregations every day—because of its inherent journalistic value or because Microsoft came to them and said, Here’s a bag of money. Find some way to make our AI tools look valuable?

It wasn’t so long ago that Facebook was making a similar demand of digital newsrooms, when it went around offering them payoffs in exchange for making use of their Facebook Live video feature. I experienced this firsthand: One day, I was doing my normal job of writing and editing posts, and then the next I was told that I would need to start sitting in front of a camera and broadcasting myself live on Facebook for a certain number of minutes per week. Everyone who had to participate in producing those little videos knew it was stupid and that we were just doing it for money we’d never personally see. I will always remember, though, how easily a few of the higher-ups deluded themselves into thinking we were producing something valuable. I remember being told that, actually, our readers really liked engaging with live video content, and that there were numbers to prove it. That was all untrue, of course. Facebook was just lying about the numbers.

Anyway, here’s Ben Smith explaining the necessity of Signals:

“What we’re trying to go after is this really weird space of breaking news on the internet now, in which you have these really splintered, fragmented, rushed efforts to get the first sentence of a story out for search engines ... and then never really make any effort to provide context,” Ben Smith said.

“We’re trying to go the other way. Here are the confirmed facts. Here are three or four pieces of really sophisticated, meaningful analysis.”

Financial Times

Ask yourself, as a news consumer: Is the problem he’s describing there real and in desperate need of a solution? Speaking only for myself, I can't say I often have too much trouble finding reliable information during breaking news events. If there’s a school shooting in Illinois, I feel like it's usually not long before I can get a pretty good understanding of what happened from the Associated Press or Reuters. If there's a natural disaster in Japan, it won't be long before The New York Times has spun up a live blog that updates with useful information. In any case, it’s hard to see how an AI chatbot that is performing the same duties as a Google search for Semafor’s journalists will make any improvements to this situation.

All of this could be written off as relatively harmless—if Microsoft wants to pay a media company a bunch of money to use its AI technology as part of a desperate attempt to convince people that AI is not going the way of Google Glass, NFTs, and the metaverse, then god bless them—except for the fact that technology companies never seem to miss an opportunity to do harm. While Facebook was throwing Facebook Live Bucks to desperate media companies with one hand, it was using the other to continue destroying the economics of digital news. And while Microsoft has drafted Semafor into its campaign to convince journalists and readers that AI can actually offer them some utility, it is busy fighting a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from The New York Times, which has accused Microsoft of infringing copyright by using the Times’ work to train its chatbot. Maybe Smith and Semafor decided to partner with Microsoft instead of joining that lawsuit because they don’t see AI as much of a threat to the news business. Or maybe they aren’t as protective of their own copyrights. Or maybe they just wanted some money.

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