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Barry Diller fired publishers’ opening shot at artificial intelligence platforms in a Semafor interv͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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July 24, 2023
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media.

When Max reported last week that Paramount chickened out from airing a Vice documentary critical of Ron DeSantis, he noted that the company “had reason to be fearful: DeSantis showed that he was willing to take on a much bigger and more influential media company, Disney.”

We don’t have any evidence that Shari Redstone and Chris McCarthy had Mickey Mouse on their minds.

But it’s not such a stretch of the imagination. After DeSantis attacked Disney, corporate media companies did in fact start thinking pretty hard about critical coverage of the Florida governor. That kind of political influence isn’t always as ham-handed as Paramount’s — a lot of it comes in what you don’t see.

Our DC newsletter, Principals, was packed with scoops last week — including Max’s DeSantis story, Shelby Talcott’s important entry into political fajita discourse, and Kadia Goba and Joseph Zeballos-Roig’s reporting on a New York Republican rebellion. Sign up here.

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London: Print is back, baby! At least for the iconic music mag NME, which promises distribution modeled on sneaker drops. — Variety

Chicago: If the C-list celebrity platform Cameo can’t thrive in this economy, what hope is there for the rest of us? — The Information

Tallahassee: Ron DeSantis is set to sit down with Megyn Kelly, whose podcast/video show is emerging as a hub of the new conservative media. “He knows it’s not going to be an easy interview, but it’s not going to be a jugular removal either,” she promised. — Megyn Kelly on YouTube

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Ben Smith

Publishers want billions, not millions, from AI

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Semafor

THE NEWS

Barry Diller fired publishers’ opening shot at artificial intelligence platforms in a Semafor interview this April, suggesting they sue the companies that have trained models on their data.

Now his company, IAC, and a handful of key publishers are close to formalizing a coalition that could lead a lawsuit as well as press for legislative action, people at those companies said. The group crucially includes the two industry pillars, The New York Times and News Corp., as well as Axel Springer.

“The thing that everyone wants to talk about is whether AI is going take over the world to eliminate humans and all that stuff,” IAC CEO Joey Levin, who is playing a central role in the coalition but declined to discuss it in detail, said in an interview in his office on Manhattan’s West Side. An AI takeover of the media “could be more profound than that sort of sci-fi fear.”

Many publishers have begun to experiment with AI tools aimed at making writing more efficient. But executives also worry about threats to everything from their revenue to the very nature of online authority.

The most immediate threat they see is a possible shift at Google from sending traffic to web pages to simply answering users’ questions with a chatbot. That nightmare scenario, for Levin, would turn a Food & Wine review into a simple text recommendation of a bottle of Malbec, without attribution.

“The machine doesn’t drink any wine or swirl any wine or smell any wine,” Levin said.

“Search was designed to find the best of the internet,” he said. “These large language models, or generative AI, are designed to steal the best of the internet.”

BEN’S VIEW

Neither publishers nor platform executives are eager to restart the bitter coastal wars of the last decade. And they’re bringing none of the utopianism of the early internet. Publishers are determined not to repeat what many see as the mistakes of the social media era, in which they gave away their content for free. And tech executives are eager to avoid new allegations that they’re destroying democracy and journalism — and the attendant congressional hearings.

And in conversations with leading figures on both sides of the argument, the outlines of a settlement in which AI companies pay for training data are becoming clear — with one large glitch.

Tech companies appear to hope that they can placate publishers with, perhaps, eight figures worth of payouts, as the Facebook News Initiative did when it doled out payments annually between 2019 and 2022, fees reportedly exceeding $20 million for the Times, $15 million for the Washington Post, and $10 million for the Wall Street Journal.

Publishers believe the numbers ought to be much bigger this time around. If these breakthrough language models rely on their inputs, they argue, the share of the value they collect should be commensurate — and should run into the billions of dollars across the industry.

Levin, other publishers and their counterparts at Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants declined to quote numbers, or to discuss the coalition they’re forming.

But the publishers, led by Diller himself, are also threatening to try their luck in court, where complex questions about how copyright law applies to both the inputs to AI training and the outputs of AI models remain largely untested. Publishers are watching with particular interest to a Delaware lawsuit over an artificial intelligence company’s copying of legal texts from Westlaw.

Payments on the scale the publishers expect would mark a dramatic change for companies like Google, which have built high-margin business in large part because they — unlike media companies from Netflix to Comcast — don’t pay for content.

Unless the publishers lower their expectations, or the tech companies adjust their fundamental sense of what it is to be a platform, this high stakes conflict is likely to escalate.

For the full story, read here.

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One Good Text

John Harris is the founding editor of POLITICO.

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Exclusives

Board to death: Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has already been one of the most accessible candidates for journalists and television news organizations covering the 2024 GOP primary. Now, he’s hoping to convince media organizations that his candidacy is more than a temporary phenomenon. In recent days, he’s had off the record meetings with top opinion writers at major newspapers, including the USA Today editorial board last week, and the editorial board at the Washington Post…

Walking back: A correction: We reported last week that Times employees were planning a walkout, and then speculated about said walkout. The problem: There was no walkout planned, we’d simply misunderstood something a Timesperson told us.

Walking out: One news org that could be headed for an employee walkout in the coming month is MSNBC. Two people familiar with the situation told Semafor that the liberal network’s unionized staff are frustrated with the current contract negotiation process, and have discussed in recent weeks a daylong walkout which could disrupt the network’s daily broadcasts...”

— Max

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