Last week, BuzzFeed nuked its entire newsroom, laying off an already significantly reduced team that had never been quite the same since the company forced out droves of investigative and politics reporters last March. And while you certainly couldn’t call this the first major newsroom layoff in history, it did feel unique for one particular reason.
In an email that company CEO Jonah Peretti sent to his soon-to-be-jobless staff, he mentioned that BuzzFeed would now focus on “increasing speed and effectiveness” while also pivoting to “bring AI enhancements to every aspect of our sales process.” Whatever Peretti thinks that means, it sure sounds like the company has decided that automated content generation is cheaper and more profitable than hiring actual journalists to report the news.
If you work in the news business, that should clearly worry you—a lot—because BuzzFeed isn’t the only one that seems to be following this road map.
Insider, which recently announced that it would be piloting a trial AI program, revealed last week that it would be laying off 10 percent of its staff. This followed on the heels of similar news from tech outlet CNET, which—after secretly launching an AI content generator last year—laid off 10 percent of its staff in March. CNET was infamously caught using its AI program to pen droves of error-ridden explainers at the behest of its owner, media firm Red Ventures. At the time of the layoffs, CNET claimed—unconvincingly—that the cuts had nothing to do with its AI use. At the same time, CNET’s editor-in-chief subsequently became its “senior vice president of AI content strategy.”
The media industry is clearly undergoing some changes—and many of those changes are tied to the emergent field of “generative AI.” Said field—which leapt onto the global stage last November with the launch of ChatGPT—utilizes new data-intensive technologies to generate human-like text and visuals, and its applications and products are swiftly reshaping the very structure of our digital economy.
The news industry is currently scrambling to take advantage of that restructuring the best that it can. During the earnings calls of several major media companies late last year, executives expressed a desire to use AI to operate newsrooms in leaner, more flexible ways. In calls with Buzzfeed Inc., as well as with newspaper giants Gannett and Dotdash Meredith, and with The Arena Group (which owns Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, and a number of other brands), top corporate officials were quick to cite evolving business strategies. The CFO of Gannett, Doug Horne, told investors that he thought AI could be used to “create efficiencies” that would ultimately help the company to save “at least $220 million” a year. Buzzfeed, meanwhile, told investors that AI would be transitioning “from an R&D stage to [become] part of” the company’s “core business.” The Arena Group’s CEO Ross Levinsohn explained that AI tools had already spawned “productivity improvements.”
While executives seem to have steered clear of explicitly mentioning layoffs, the tenor of the conversation in the industry is not so hard to grasp.
“At the heart of the line of questions we’ve heard across numerous calls is how automation can replace people, and what that ultimately means for revenue… and cash flow,” Daniel Kurnos, a media analyst with the investment banking firm The Benchmark Company, previously told Digiday. “We’ve heard several executives discuss cautious testing phases, but I think everyone is waiting to see how the tech evolves before fully committing one way or the other.”
In short: if you work in the news media, it wouldn’t be crazy for you to feel like you’ve just been placed on an endangered species list. Automation of a sort we’ve never witnessed before is now coming for whole new sectors of the global economy, and if you value your job, it may be that “generative AI” ends up causing you a lot more problems than it solves.
AI’s Big Benefit: More Money for Corporations, Less for People
It’s not as if there haven’t been signs that things were trending in this direction.
Since it started, generative AI’s biggest proponents have pitched it as a cost saver—a way for companies to cut down on “labor intensive” processes, as well as reduce spending, optimize worker “efficiency” and “maximize ROI.” Prognosticators haven’t been shy about the fact that a lot of this corporate-speak is really just code for giving workers the boot. A recent report from the vampire squid itself, Goldman Sachs, notes that AI automation could “impact” as much as 25 percent of the labor force in both the U.S. and Europe in the years to come. Other projections, like one from consulting giant McKinsey, estimate a total displacement of roughly 15 percent of the global workforce, or some 400 million people.
You might find these predictions horrifying but, to the C-Suite, it’s clearly a positive turn of events: Arvind Krishna, the CEO of IBM, recently told the Financial Times that he thought it was “a good thing” that AI will replace workers because such disruption will help bolster the unemployment rate in the U.S.—thus keeping things nice and flexible for corporations. Of course, the other reason that people like Krishna are excited about AI is that it promises to make them even richer than they already are. A recent report from Grand View Research suggests that while AI will disrupt certain sectors of workers, it’s also projected to bring in billions in new corporate revenue over the next decade. With all that in mind, it’s hard not to feel that AI tools are—from a corporate perspective, at least—largely just a way to hike profits by automating labor.
Sam Altman, CEO of the startup OpenAI which spawned the popular AI chatbot ChatGPT, has spent years writing about AI’s hugely disruptive potential on his personal blog, and so seems to have been quite ready to respond to critics when murmurs about “job loss” and “displacement” started cropping up online not long after his product’s launch. In December, Altman preempted complaints from the rank and file about AI’s job-killing potential, tweeting out what seemed like a friendly missive about the world to come:
“good skills for the future: adaptability and resilience. i think these are learnable! hard to answer the question of ‘what jobs will be safe’, but humans always find new things to do, and the future will likely be amazing. embracing change will be important.”
Tech moguls love to say stuff like this, and you can totally see why: in their eyes, the future belongs to them. I’m sure things will be totally amazing for Sam—who is so rich that he never has to work again and can afford to waste tens of millions of dollars on dubious investments—like life-extension startups. Financial opulence of that sort tends to make a guy optimistic about the future.
For the rest of us, though, the truth is this: generative AI is coming for your job. Maybe it’s not coming tomorrow, maybe it’s not coming next year, but rest assured, it’s coming.
Kicking Editorial to the Curb
The outlook is especially precarious for journalists, whose industry is threatened by an ongoing economic crisis.
The complicated financial ecosystem in which the news business finds itself these days means that there’s no guarantee that traditional forms of reporting will be protected amidst broader technological disruptions. The alliance between private equity and journalism, for instance, has never been a happy one—and it could get a whole lot less happy soon. For lack of a viable alternative financial model, newsrooms have latched onto this money-grubbing industry, which is populated by firms that see journalists less as achievers of a public good than as a quick route to profits. A 2022 study from NYU showed that private equity’s management of local newspapers had resulted in an “unambiguously negative” impact on the communities they were supposed to serve. News coverage devolved from more local-specific coverage to national news that was easier to syndicate. The report states that this coverage shift resulted in declines in “voter knowledge of local policy issues and participation in the political process” and generally contributed to a less educated (and less involved) electorate.
Now that new automation tools appear to offer a quicker way for firms to get the same product without paying actual human journalists, it seems almost inevitable that—when it comes to content quality—they’ll continue a veritable race to the bottom in an effort to chase bigger and bigger profits.
Journalists’ work, meanwhile, threatens to be transmogrified into little more than the stultifying task of editing an algorithm’s output. That certainly seems to be what’s in store for whoever answers this job posting from the Gannett-owned USA Today Network, which says it is currently in the market for “forward-thinking journalists passionate about using new technology to fuel quality journalism in service to local news.” Among these lucky new employees’ duties will be the responsibility of “obtaining, cleaning and automating data in preparation for publication,” presumably from some ChatGPT-type generator.
The Robots Are Coming
Of course, it’s not just journalists and media professionals that are under threat here. A slew of assessments have shown that many different industries could soon be subjected to massive disruptions as the result of automation. This is where the threat of AI get decidedly more existential—and where the conversation gets a whole lot more theoretical.
There’s been a decades-long debate about whether robots will ultimately steal most of our jobs. Some analysts say this won’t happen, others say it will, and, to a certain degree, both seem to be right—depending on where you’re sitting. Automation has undeniably been hollowing out some lower- and middle-class industries for decades—and this trend is only projected to accelerate in the years to come. While predictions about AI’s future displacement of labor are hotly disputed, what isn’t so disputed is that we’re headed for more automation, not less. Some have predicted that AI will wipe out white-collar industries and leave the blue-collar economy intact, but I wouldn’t be so sure of that. It definitely looks like the folks at Boston Dynamics are working their butts off to invent the first generation of automated warehouse worker.
If and when AI “massively disrupts” both white- and blue-collar industries, that sorta begs the question: uh, what are people supposed to do with their time? How do you participate in an economy that doesn’t have any need for you? Where is the average worker supposed to get their money?
This is where Sam’s “adaptability” and “resilience” concept comes in, but this is basically just shorthand for: “fuck if I know what you’re going to do! good luck!”
For years, the tech industry has pitched a theoretical solution to the automation-labor problem. The answer to AI’s impending job wipeout, many Silicon Vally bros tell us, is simple: once robots make up most of the labor market, the government should start sending everybody a monthly check in the mail. This is what is known as “universal basic income,” or UBI. Tech libertarians are huge fans of this idea (shoutout to presidential loser Andrew Yang), which is very strange because it’s basically the modern day equivalent of welfare—a concept that, historically, libertarians have also been known to hate. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ideological spectrum, the world’s most starry-eyed lefties imagine a future in which, after the robots take over, our lives are born aloft by “fully automated luxury communism”—a daffy utopianism that sees all of us living the life of leisure while automation takes care of every human need.
No offense to fans of either of these ideas, but they are both quite stupid—for a number of reasons.
For one thing, enacting such a redistributive program would necessarily involve the federal government. Let’s set aside the fact that Congress is currently so polarized that it can’t even agree on what happened the last time we all voted. More importantly, there is no political will to make something like this happen. The GOP has long pushed for a drastic reduction of social welfare benefits, frequently lobbying to cut popular programs like Social Security and Medicare. More than a few Democrats are on the same page. The idea that, in this day and age, Congress would ever pass legislation allowing large swaths of the population to sit around and do nothing all day, all with the help of government subsidies, is utterly fanciful. It’s like predicting that Bill Gates might soon declare himself a socialist. Sure, it could technically happen, but it won’t!
On another level, it’s hard to imagine how a society in which most people don’t have jobs would actually function. Psychologically, how would Americans—whose identities and lives so often center around work—deal with the fact that they are no longer considered important to the functioning of the economy? How would a middle-class lifestyle be sustained on what is sure to be a less than optimal government handout? In short: would being unemployed forever actually make you happy? It’s easy to dream of a world in which your life is an endless vacation, but social analyses of communities where the population is jobless show decidedly darker results. Remember that old saying about idle hands? There’s got to be a reason that billionaires and mega-millionaires like Sam Altman still insist on working—even when they don’t have to.
To cut to the chase, Silicon Valley’s “plan” to have the government pay everybody money so that robots can take their jobs is not an actual plan. Instead, it is a PR dodge, a marketing stunt—tactically deployed bullshit—meant to keep the public from freaking out for just long enough that the companies pushing AI can swoop in and make their products the bedrock of the new economic superstructure. After that, it doesn’t really matter what happens—at least, not to them.
Labor Organizing as a Stop Gap
So things seem pretty bad out there. But there’s a much needed caveat to the foregoing rant that it seems necessary to include at this point: it’s certainly possible that I could be engaging in a certain amount of pessimistic alarmism. If I’m just being honest, I have been known to do that. In truth, the future is unwritten and literally anything could happen. It could be that AI is just a flash in the pan. It could be that the market deployment of these tools never takes off. It could be that the economy crashes next week and AI never gets back on track. Or, maybe newsrooms will forego worker displacement, instead fusing human and machine collaboration to make the most awesomest AI journalism ever!
Seriously, who knows what’s going to happen?
But even if any or all of that ends up being true, it still seems like a smart move for people to work together to enact some protections against the disruptions that this new technology will undoubtedly bring. In truth, there are really only two things that meaningfully fit that bill: labor organizing and government regulations. If the rest of us are smart, we’ll try to take advantage of these participatory outlets the best that we can. Indeed, given the media industry’s recent upsurge in labor organizing, it seems there’s a real opportunity for some sort of collective action that is offensive rather than defensive. That is, journalists don’t have to wait around until their newsrooms are actively being gutted to do something about this situation. A push for industry standards or additional regulations that protects workers from undue displacement is possible, if people act together. Similarly, broader regulatory frameworks of the type being rolled out in Italy and other European countries should also be considered here. It is in those frameworks that protections for labor can be effectively carved out.
On an entirely different level, there needs to be a broader civic conversation about this technology before it is so thoughtlessly foisted upon society. AI should be interrogated, not simply accepted as the next evolution in our economic journey. Are these tools really going to make people’s lives better? Or are they going to make a small amount of companies an immense amount of money while the rest of us struggle to catch up?
Want to know more about AI, chatbots, and the future of machine learning? Check out our full coverage of artificial intelligence, or browse our guides to The Best Free AI Art Generators and Everything We Know About OpenAI’s ChatGPT.