Can AI Save USA Today?

The analysis of whether artificial intelligence (AI) can replace human writers and editors has caused an unpleasant debate. Buzzfeed, a public company, had a 150% spike in its stock price when it announced it would use the technology to create some stories. Tech news site CNET was criticized for hiding its use of AI as an article “author” without disclosing how the content in question was created. Nevertheless, the CNET experiment showed that, for some stories, the technology worked. (Here is where AI will put the most people out of work.)

A growing success rate of AI as a means of creating accurate articles quickly raises the question of whether it could help cut enough editorial costs for beleaguered newspaper companies to help keep them financially viable. The answer is yes.

24/7 Wall St. has experimented with the ability of AI to create lists. The work is in its early stages. Because lists are not at the core of article analysis, the ability to replace writers is unlikely. However, a good initial list article can be created by AI. The spelling, punctuation, and syntax are usually excellent, which save a great deal of time.

From looking across the media, our own experience and discussions with editors at other content companies, we found AI could almost completely write a reasonably large number of articles at USA Today and other newspapers. A recent top story at USA Today is a good example. “CPI inflation rate slows to 6% in February, but prices post strong monthly gain” is mostly a collection of publicly available data and comparisons that are very common. The article also includes some basic questions and answers for the reader. Both the questions and the answers could be written without a human. Probably, the entire story would need light editing.

The first draft of “Former Rep. Pat Schroeder, pioneer for women’s rights, dies” would not have to be written by a human. The same is probably true with “Airline family seating policies highlighted amid Biden push and new DOT dashboard.”

About 20% of the articles on the front page of USA Today online lend themselves to well-done AI-created first drafts. The level of editing on these almost certainly would be light.

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As AI-written content tools improve, the number of articles on the home page of USA Today, or most newspapers, that could be written without a human will grow. It is far too early to know the upper limit of this. It will take many months, and perhaps years, to understand that.

Newspapers like USA Today can use AI to write some portions of their articles today. Its parent, Gannett, suffers from falling revenue and a debt-laden balance sheet. AI may be a partial way to help the company with its financial challenges.

Editor’s note: 24/7 Wall St. has been a paid content creator for USA Today off and on for several years. 24/7 Wall St. continues to get very small residuals from one of those agreements.

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