Jun 8 • 5M

How AI could fix journalism

And why licensure would ruin it

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Cathy Reisenwitz
A podcast which is me reading you my newsletter about power.
Episode details

Watch me read this.

I think it’s fair to say most of the coverage of AI has been negative. I admired these podcast hosts for saying the quiet part out loud: They’re worried about their jobs.

I think the journalists who are most worried about being replaced by algorithms are the ones who have the most to fear. It’s like a candlestick maker opposing electrification because it threatens their job, but worse because journalists have influence. Good journalists have the creativity, ability to project into the future, and selflessness to think beyond their current media employment.

This piece from Axios’ Finish Line on how AI will likely impact media was a great counterpoint. Finish Line may be a good source on AI going forward, as the piece says the company began this vertical because “There's simply too much doom and gloom on TV and many news sites. Consumers want and deserve a better mix of content, including healthy and helpful content.”

I’m not an AI Pollyanna. There are many legitimate reasons to worry about AI outside the narrow-minded, short-sighted, and selfish.

But overall, I’m optimistic about AI. At the end of the day, AI is automation. And every wave of automation in the history of the world has not only increased the quantity of jobs, but their quality as well. It’s replaced relatively boring and dangerous jobs with more interesting, safer ones.

Most importantly, every wave of automation has helped alleviate material scarcity. AI is probably our fastest, most efficient path to a world in which the average person does not have to toil to stay alive. Technologically speaking, we already live in that world. The world produces more than enough of the resources humans need to survive to keep everyone alive whether or not they work. The problem of scarcity is not mainly technological, but political.

Which is why it’s important that AI developers tend to move faster than politics. And why it’s essential that we don’t let politics stifle AI.

But back to journalism. I do think it’s going to put a ton of writers out of work. AGI will make the vast majority of not particularly creative writers unnecessary. A glut of writers will make life harder for most writers, myself included, at least for a while. Luckily for my mental health, if not my pocketbook, I graduated with a journalism degree in 2008 in a city that had a very large concentration of extremely experienced, well-connected, talented writers who suddenly needed new jobs just as I needed my first job.

I’ll figure it out again. Or I won’t. But there’s nothing that’s going to stop AGI and I wouldn’t want to anyway. It’s humanity’s fastest path to post-scarcity.

It’s also reasonable for journalists to fear AI because the last world-shifting technology, the internet, absolutely fucked journalists and journalism. The internet enabled analytics which made the ROI of each story absolutely transparent to publishers who then got into a race to the bottom to pump out the highest margin stories. Publishers suddenly knew that personal essays and opinion drove more revenue than reporting and are way cheaper to produce.

Chasing rage clicks turned out to be almost universally terrible for democracy and humanity. That’s the seen.

But the unseen is perhaps even worse. I don’t have the energy to find it, but I heard an NPR or Hidden Brain podcast many years ago about how a study showed that when a local reporter stops covering a city council they start wasting more money. Here’s where AI could come in and do a lot of good. You could have an AI take an audio recording of every city council meeting, turn it into a transcript, and then analyze it for bullshit. Does the proposal cost more than comparable projects cost in comparable cities? Why? Are labor costs too high? How do labor regulations differ from city-to-city? Are the contracts competitive? Yada yada. None of this takes a genius to do. It takes time and energy, which AGI has a lot of. And it will be cheap as fuck. This could literally usher in a transformative wave of local government accountability and transparency. Which is why city councils are going to try to block it and why I think we need to be ready to fight them at every turn.

Right now Senator Josh Hawley is pushing for AI licensure requirements. Can you imagine a scenario in which governments are more likely to grant licenses to algorithms that offer citizens more insight into the workings of government? This is reason 65265541 why AI licensure is a fucking terrible idea.

There is no plausible reality in which licensure improves safety or quality. But licensure is absolutely certain to limit competition, raise prices, and create more opportunity for revolving door bullshit.

There are so many aspects of our existence beyond journalism that AI has the potential to improve. Licensure across professions has been an unmitigated disaster. We cannot make the same mistake here.