The AI Revolution and what it means for local news

As local newsrooms across America grapple with dwindling resources and staff shortages, artificial intelligence (AI) is stepping in to help revitalize the industry. AI technologies, like Codeway’s Ask AI, are being leveraged to generate accurate, timely, and hyperlocal news content, offering a lifeline to struggling local news outlets.

For years, local news in America has faced a crisis. Numerous local papers have downsized or ceased operations, leaving communities without essential coverage. This phenomenon, known as “news deserts,” has left millions of Americans uninformed about local affairs. However, AI offers a solution to this crisis. 

So, the top two paragraphs in italics are not my words. They are the way Chat GPT, an AI- powered assistant developed by Open AI in partnership with Microsoft, suggested I lead this story after feeding the chatbot this prompt: “Write a news story about the way that AI can help solve the crisis in local news in America” 

It even offered a headline: “Revolutionizing Local News in America: AI to the Rescue.”

Well, it’s definitely not a headline I would use – a bit too on the nose, lacking wit. And there are a few other problems I have with the chatbot story which I’ll share. But it is definitely not wrong to call what is happening with AI a “revolution,” and at GroundTruth we want to be part of this revolution and make sure that the way this technology is implemented in newsrooms is aligned with the mission and goals of journalism. This week GroundTruth announced a new initiative on AI in local news as part of a collaboration with Microsoft to help our Report for America and Report for the World newsrooms find ethical and effective ways to use AI.

The “Microsoft On The Issues” blog described the collaboration with GroundTruth and four other organizations as helping newsrooms to “train a new generation of reporters on best uses of AI” and to help “build sustainable newsrooms for generations to come.”

There is still a long way to go on figuring out the practical applications for AI in local news. There are some interesting experiments around chronicling high school sports and covering municipal government meetings and with the sharing of community calendar listings. AI can definitely be a powerful tool for investigative reporting and particularly in assessing large data sets. But the truth is no one has cracked the code for local reporting just yet. 

Our Report for America team has conducted an initial needs assessment and reports that there is great interest in learning more about AI among the local newsrooms we partner with across all 50 states. In a sample of newsroom managers, 85 percent, or 183 out of 213 respondents, expressed interest in the training workshops that Report for America plans to offer this year. A quarter of our partner newsrooms are already using AI in some way and want to find out about how to use it more effectively. And about twenty percent are not currently using AI but are exploring ways to get started. It will be exciting to see where this takes us and how local newsrooms across America use AI to serve their communities. We will be following this all closely and will keep you posted in this newsletter. 

So how do we journalists of a certain age feel about AI in the newsroom? Let’s go back to the suggested ChatGPT lead and headline for its story. The AI generated words offer, perhaps, an adequate approach to the prompt at the center of this column. But I would come at the story a different way. I would try to weave in more urgency about the crisis and more edge on how the news industry is in a “do-or-die” moment to finally get it right with technology. 

I would also try to balance the top of the story to inject more of the concerns being raised about the potential perils of AI for spreading misinformation, particularly in a year in which billions of people, nearly half of the planet, will be voting in elections at a time when it feels like the future of democracy is hanging in the balance. And the story would need to point out that AI companies are not transparent in how they are using content created by news organizations or in attributing those news organizations, prompting legal questions around publishing rights. The lack of transparency also raises the specter of errors and misinformation finding their way into stories. 

I would stress that these potential pitfalls require a future of AI in journalism that will still include human beings, also known as reporters, who are on the ground verifying the information in service to their local community. And in conclusion, I would drive home why we as journalists have to be sure we have a seat at the table as AI is given shape in the public square. The stakes are high, and journalism will have to play its cards right to be sure the technology is aligned with its mission and with its need to find sustainable business models.

Oh, and while we are editing the chatbot, I would definitely avoid the prominent brand mention of Codeway that mysteriously made its way to the top of the generative AI story. It appears to be a tech company founded in Istanbul in 2020 that is successfully scaling. It is strange that Codeway came up so prominently, and it is certainly not serving readers to force a single brand on them when there are so many different and emerging forms of language models powered by AI. In short, the glitch with Codeway is one small, curious example of why we will want reporters and editors to be there shaping the words of the stories offered to their local communities.  

If we can do this right and get the glitches out, AI can certainly help local reporters at struggling local news organizations work more quickly while remaining within their ethical guidelines and give them more time for the analysis and context that often gets short shrift in under-staffed newsrooms. 

My central point is pretty obvious, and it is this: We as journalists have to be sure we don’t blow it this time. News organizations, particularly local newspapers, across America largely missed the last quantum shift in technology in the 1990s when the industry as a whole was fatefully slow to embrace the future of the internet and the central role it would play in all of our lives, and in shaping how we produce and share our reporting. 

We definitely missed how profoundly it would disrupt the business models of journalism, and specifically how it would transform advertising revenue. As most of you who read this newsletter already know, nearly two thirds of all digital advertising revenue goes to just two companies: Facebook and Google. Understanding the current crisis in local news begins with the industry, including large national organizations and small community newsrooms, reflecting on our own failures to see the future and our struggle to adapt to it. 

The industry as a whole was arrogant and too often dismissive about the possibilities that the internet offered to transform the craft and the business of journalism. How do I know this? I lived it while working for The Boston Globe from the end of 1993 to 2008 and later as a founder of GlobalPost, the first digital-only international news organization in America which we launched in 2009. I was able to build a stellar network of journalists at GlobalPost who did award winning work, but unfortunately, we did not have a viable business model. That’s why I pivoted to the non-profit approach in founding GroundTruth which thanks to an amazing and dedicated team has become part of a movement to revitalize journalism at this time of deep crisis by making sure it is built around the idea of service to local communities. 

It is not often in life that you get to live through not one, but two revolutionary moments in your craft. And with that experience, my take is that those of us who passionately believe in the power of journalism have a chance to actually get ahead of the curve and seize the potential of AI, and to leverage the new technology to save the essential but withering public service of local news. 

At GroundTruth, we are determined to be part of the vanguard in helping local news organizations find a place to start to see the possibilities of AI in serving their local communities. Noreen Gillespie, the journalism director of Microsoft’s Democracy Forward initiative, frames the collaboration in ways that are both reassuring for the old guard and inspiring for a new generation, and in a way that has all the required context. That’s not surprising as Gillespie is an outstanding reporter and editor with a distinguished career most recently at Associated Press, where we worked closely with her in placing AP reporters in under-covered statehouses through Report for America. In the “Microsoft On The Issues” blog, Gillespie wrote about the need for our collaboration this way:

“The survival of fact-based news is inextricably linked to healthy democracies, thriving communities, and civic participation. Journalism has an essential function in fighting against information operations and threats to democracy. Central to all of these commitments is journalists themselves. Healthy news organizations do not exist without journalists who know their communities and topics, have deep relationships with leaders in government and civic life, and understand how to reach their communities. This work is challenging – and our goal is to find ways to support journalists in this mission, not replace them. By working with these organizations, we hope to shed light on the promise that the newsroom of the future can hold.”