Senators hear testimony that AI is worsening news industry’s troubles

The Rocky Mountain News, which was launched in 1859, became a casualty of the news industry’s troubles when it closed in 2009. Pictured are freelance photographer Linda McConnell, left, photographer Judy Dehaas and photo editor Dean Krakel in the newsroom. (David Zalubowski / AP, 2009)
The Rocky Mountain News, which was launched in 1859, became a casualty of the news industry’s troubles when it closed in 2009. Pictured are freelance photographer Linda McConnell, left, photographer Judy Dehaas and photo editor Dean Krakel in the newsroom. (David Zalubowski / AP, 2009)

News leaders told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that journalism is at risk of being snuffed out by tech giants that apparently care more about growing profits than preserving this cornerstone of democracy.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on the latest threat to the battered local news industry, artificial intelligence systems scraping and regurgitating the work of print and broadcast journalists with little to no attribution or compensation.

Brier Dudley's SAVE THE FREE PRESS columns are made available for free to the public and to other newspapers for their use — to build awareness of the local journalism crisis and potential solutions. The entire body of work is viewable here:

The hearing, before the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, also serves as the kickoff to this year’s discussion of why and how Congress should help save what’s left of America’s local journalism industry before it’s too late.

As industry leaders testified, generative AI systems are turbocharging existing problems with tech platforms that hobble news publishers trying to build sustainable businesses online.

“Today’s Gen AI tools maintain complete copies of the works they train on, including our content, and output the substance — sometimes verbatim, sometimes paraphrased — while keeping 100% of the value for themselves,” Roger Lynch, CEO of publisher Condé Nast, said in prepared testimony.

“They are training consumers to come to them for information, not to us, and, unlike traditional search, they are keeping consumers within their experiences, depriving us of the opportunity to connect with our audiences directly, customize our content for them, and generate advertising and subscription revenue, sales leads and other valuable data,” he continued. “By misappropriating our content in this way, they are directly threatening the viability of the media ecosystem.”

Many news publishers in the U.S. are now blocking AI systems from scraping their content and lawsuits have been filed over the systems’ unfair use of copyrighted material. But as Lynch testified, this is unfeasible with Google because they still need to surface content through its dominant search service.

A handful of media companies signed content-sharing deals with ChatGPT developer OpenAI. It may be following the playbook of Google, which signed a few deals with publishers and gave some grants to blunt criticism, gather allies and forestall paying the billions it owes the news industry.

On their way to banking billions, monopolistic tech giants tossed pennies from the limo as thousands of local newspapers failed, tens of thousands of journalists lost their jobs and millions of Americans were left with no local reporting of their communities.

But today the news industry was preaching to the choir. The Judiciary Committee last June passed the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would enable news outlets to collectively bargain with dominant tech platforms and require the platforms to negotiate content usage deals.

“The concerns that drove this committee’s consideration of that legislation — ensuring local media remain viable and fairly compensated when our content is accessed through Big Tech platforms — are exacerbated by the emergence of generative AI technologies,” Curtis LeGeyt, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, testified.

The full Senate and House need to advance this bipartisan policy and be skeptical of opposition from pundits and organizations grasping those pennies. As lawmakers deliberate, elections approach, 2.5 newspapers a week are failing and more sophisticated fake news is proliferating online.

Disruptive year: Media leaders expect a turbulent year, with less than half confident about the prospects for journalism in 2024, according to a new global survey.

Some are hopeful that elections and the Olympics will boost news consumption but perhaps not enough to offset technological disruption, growing business challenges and news fatigue.

Overarching concerns include “rising costs, declining advertising revenue and a slowing in subscription growth — as well as increasing legal and physical harassment,” according to the survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

The institute surveyed 314 media leaders in 56 countries, including editors, CEOs and digital executives. Among them, just 47% are confident in the prospects for journalism in 2024.

It found 63% are worried about sharply declining web traffic referrals from social-media sites, with 22% expecting to cut costs as a result, the survey found.

There isn’t much left to cut at many news organizations, including thousands of U.S. newspapers already gutted by debt-burdened corporate chains.

Compounding the challenges are “the twin dangers of selective news avoidance and news fatigue.” In response, 67% of media leaders believe it’s important to better explain complex stories, 44% favor more solutions-oriented storytelling and 43% think it’s important to report more inspirational human stories.

That doesn’t mean fluff and pablum, though: Just 21% believe they should respond with “more positive” news and 18% favor more “entertaining” stories.

“If they are to survive, media companies will need to wholeheartedly embrace digital, while continuing to squeeze revenue from traditional channels,” stated a report on the survey, by senior research associate Nic Newman. “In many parts of the world, however, print distribution networks are so weakened that we may be close to reaching a point where regular home delivery becomes unviable.”

AI is a mixed bag, the survey found, with 56% of respondents saying the technology will be important to automating back-end systems and 71% saying it’s a very important or somewhat important tool for identifying stories or analyzing data.

But 56% believe that using AI for content creation risks their reputation, which comes as trust in news organizations is distressingly low.

“This explains the higher level of focus right now on these back-end efficiencies and more caution around robo-journalism of different kinds,” Newman wrote.

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website,

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: Reach him at


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