Between Wednesday and Thursday, roughly 50 staffers received the news that their contracts would not be renewed after their June 30 expiration date. All are employed through outside agencies, including 27 writers with the UK’s PA Media Group, according to a Guardian report.
“Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement via the Seattle Times. “This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, re-deployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”
Former employees speaking on condition of anonymity told the Seattle Times and Business Insider that, moving forward, MSN will use AI to perform their previous duties. Full-time news producers employed by Microsoft directly and who perform similar functions will remain on staff.
Microsoft’s news organizations already relied on algorithms for finding the most popular trending stories from among the company’s many publishing partners (MSN canned all original content years ago), but still relied on old-fashion, flesh-and-blood writers to help frame this content by tweaking wording, headlines, and photos. Contract employees were also responsible for some day-to-day operations like maintaining editorial calendars for MSN’s partner news websites or curating scheduled content.
“It’s been semi-automated for a few months but now it’s full speed ahead,” one of the terminated contractors told the Seattle Times. “It’s demoralizing to think machines can replace us but there you go.”
Another staffer expressed a similar sentiment to the Guardian. “I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs, and here I am—AI has taken my job.”
They added that replacing contract journalists with software may end up blowing up in Microsoft’s face given the “very strict editorial guidelines” the company gave them for keeping violent or inappropriate content off the front page. Even the most sophisticated machine is more likely than a person to miss important nuances that could come off to readers as insensitive or offensive. Microsoft did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for additional detail about how AI will be incorporated into MSN’s content production process.
Many outlets have been expanding the role of AI and machine learning in their newsrooms for years now. The Associated Press, Reuters, and the Washington Post are among several that have adopted automated systems for content management, whether that’s through suggesting headlines, parsing the daily flood of press releases, posts, and comments, or helping to cover what reporters aren’t always able to such as local sports and elections. Google has also begun funding automated news projects and designing training resources for journalists to incorporate AI into their newsrooms.
However, this round of lay-offs from Microsoft seems particularly tone-deaf given the currently stagnant job market and record levels of unemployment amid the coronavirus crisis. Not that there’s ever really a right time to be told your job’s being replaced by a robot, that is.