Generative AI an  ‘extinction-level’ threat to news media

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    The advent of generative AI looks “increasingly like an extinction-level event” for news publications, Stuff owner Sinead Boucher told a Parliamentary committee  considering  the proposed  Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill last week.

    Journalism here “is in a fight for its life” and “clinging on by its fingertips . . .  against some of history’s biggest companies,” she said.

    This is not hyperbole or even the deeply unfair business environment experienced by all our community businesses in a time of giant monopolies that have hoovered up our food, groceries, finance, manufacturing, primary produce, traditional retail and even democratic processes. Mostly into monopolies.

    We’re fighting for our lives, media figures have been saying around the world since the Australian government challenged the offshore tech giants three years ago and found itself (and the country’s emergency services) arbitrarily cut off by Facebook and Google. Since then, however, legislation to force the tech titans to do deals with news publishers eventually won a bargaining code that now puts millions of dollars back into Australian news publishers.

    AI, the feared villain of most science fiction in my lifetime is now superimposed – almost unchallenged, unregulated, untested – on the already-extractive national knowledge stream without the most rudimentary checks and balances.

    Newspapers – the Fourth Estate – are vital to any concept of democracy. The pony express that galloped across the prairies in the nineteenth-century United States of America was not carrying letters from family left behind on the Atlantic coast. Every shootout had a newspaperman in shirt sleeves setting the headlines in type for the next day’s paper.

    The service, mandated but not fettered by the government, was carrying journals of every opinion and political stripe to inform and empower the country’s enormous landmass. Robust information and debate was the glue that made the sprawling US a coherent nation. Great, even.

    Journalism was a critical element of nineteenth century democratic aspiration and nearly every small town in fledgeling New Zealand had a venerable newspaper title to its name as well, run by august family dynasties until the hostile take-overs from abroad 30 years ago pillaged revenue streams and closed titles, shedding trained journalists and local knowledge and crying poor for government assistance as Covid hit four years ago.

    New Zealand’s proposed Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill is based on the Australian and Canadian models developed since and was mooted last year by the Labour Government as a tool to pressure Google and Facebook owner Meta to pay news media companies here for the local news and content they carry on their lucrative online platforms – at devastating cost to local media that have lost the lion’s share of their advertising revenue to the giants while at the same time becoming more dependent on them to reach an audience online.

    The bill would establish legislative requirements for equitable treatment for all news media entities (including smaller, rural, regional, Māori, ethnic, community, and public news media entities), providing for a good-faith bargaining environment and an independent news media industry.

    It would recognise a shift in the way that people consume news and media content and that the technology – capturing an enormous amount of advertising revenue and monetising news without having paid for it – has undermined the viability of traditional media business models.

    It would also enable them to reap the remuneration from the valuable news their professional journalists produce.

    Daryl Holden, managing editor of the Ashburton Guardian, founded in 1879 and still under family ownership, said the situation “could be the collapse of New Zealand media. And we know what effect that could have on communities that it relied on for so long.”

    Jana Rangooni of the Radio Broadcasters Association told the committee that, in the current regulatory framework, the government was asking New Zealand media companies to compete against the likes of Google and Meta.

    “That is like asking the All Blacks to compete at a Rugby World Cup in bare feet,” she said.. “It is not a level playing field. This legislation is about  . . . trying to deal with the issues of a huge imbalance in the market structure that we’re operating in.”

    RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson told the committee a robust media system is not a nice-to-have. “It’s essential as a sovereign nation. It’s the bedrock of our sovereignty as a nation. If we don’t tell our stories, someone will come in and do it for us from offshore,” he said. “If New Zealanders didn’t have a choice they would get the information from somewhere else and it will break our democracy.”

    It can be noted that Kiwi taxpayers aren’t on a good wicket either. I Googled their own company revenue which showed the tech giant’s operations in New Zealand posted a $20.5 million dollar post-tax profit (up from $15m in 2021). This after it had sent a ‘service fee’ of $870 million dollars off to its US parent. • Liz Waters

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