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Today: an eyebrow-raising scoop on AI chewing up financial journalism, Axios’ AI illustrations, the ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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December 11, 2023
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we appreciate the invitation.

The White House holiday party for the press corps is one of those occasions when journalists balance their adversarial independence and their institutional role … and invariably decide to come to the party in the cheerily decorated East Wing. Even the New York Times, which eschews the White House Correspondents Association affair, sent a delegation. The New York Post wrote a whole article this year complaining they hadn’t been invited. Attendees get the opportunity to bring a friend or family member to the White House (which is, after all, the White House), for a photo with the president (who is, after all, the president), a hard thing to turn down.

Given the goodwill and the captive, well-fed audience, Wednesday’s party was also a prime opportunity for President Joe Biden to dispel his main problem with the U.S. media right now — the undercurrent of concern that he’s too old for the job. It was an opportunity to say, in some sense: Hey, you idiots, I may be old but I’m fine.

That was clearly the goal of brief remarks he made at the East Wing party, which began with the usual joke — I’m for a free press, even when you drive me crazy. But he then strayed into a couple of hazy monologues, which ended only when his wife interrupted him to remind him it was a party. His speech wasn’t terrible, or even noteworthy. But everyone in the room realized Biden had a simple rhetorical job and hadn’t quite pulled it off.

Biden then stood for hours, grinning and gripping and making coherent conversation on a photo line — a feat of endurance and a bit of a nightmare at any age. Still, I’d expect that speech to echo quietly in reporters’ minds — and in their coverage — over the coming months.

Also today: Max has an eyebrow-raising scoop on AI chewing up financial journalism. Plus, Axios’ AI illustrations, a prestige podcast seeks a new home, the Trump campaign spreads a fake NBC News clip, Times reporters’ salaries are revealed, MacKenzie Scott writes her first check to a news organization, and smaller Hollywood players feel the heat. (Scoop count: 5)

Assignment Desk

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman was the dominant foreign affairs columnist of the pre-Internet era. Since then, and especially since the Iraq war, he’s occupied an odd place in journalism as the incarnation of American conventional wisdom, open to pot-shots from all directions.

But Friedman, who had been ringing alarms with increasing urgency about Benjamin Netanyahu’s governance, is now without question the most influential journalist anywhere near the Gaza conflict. He talks to everyone, and is read and listened to in the White House, Jerusalem, and in Arab capitals. He told me in a text that he’s declining interviews because “I prefer to speak through my column where I can weigh every word that goes out,” at a moment that is “the most important in my 45 years as a journalist.”

I’ve read one Friedman reassessment, but there’s space for more.

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Max Tani

A financial news site uses AI to copy competitors — wholesale

THE SCOOP

One of the most highly-trafficked financial news websites in the world is creating AI-generated stories that bear an uncanny resemblance to stories published just hours early by other competitors.

Investing.com, a Tel Aviv-based site owned by Joffre Capital, is a financial news and information hub that provides a mix of markets data and investing tips and trends. But increasingly, the site has been relying on AI to create its stories, which often appear to be thinly-veiled copies of human-written stories written elsewhere.

  • In early November, the blog CryptoNewsLand wrote a short item noting that the token XRP had “witnessed a resurgence in both its price and investor activity” in recent days. Just a few hours later, Investing published a similar article citing nine of the same statistics as those in the CryptoNewsLand story, as well as the same dataset from Santiment. Both articles were four paragraphs.
  • On the same day, longrunning financial news site The Motley Fool published a story comparing Microsoft’s stock performance to Google’s. In its piece, Motley Fool noted that Microsoft seemed poised for growth in the AI and gaming parts of its business, while Google was bringing in more revenue than Microsoft overall through Google Search and YouTube alone. Just an hour later, Investing published an article comparing the same two stocks, making the exact same points about the strengths and weaknesses of both businesses.
  • In October, the Barcelona-based currency and crypto news site FXStreet published a story about how Grayscale Investments had secured a victory in its legal battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The piece cited tweets by YouTuber Crypto Rover, the X account @nsquaredcrypto, and analysts at Berenberg discussing the likely legal outcome. Investing published its own piece on the situation several hours later citing the exact same sources.

In each instance, Investing disclosed that its stories were written with the help of AI, with oversight from an editor. But unlike news aggregators, which link or credit other news sources, Investing did not note or credit anyone except its own AI.

Investing’s AI articles — and their strong similarities to other recent pieces written by humans — have not gone unnoticed by competitors.

Pere Monguió, the head of content at FXStreet, told Semafor in an email that he and his team noticed several months ago that Investing was publishing stories similar to their site’s articles. FXStreet’s 60-person team monitors and quickly analyzes developments in global currencies. By pumping out AI articles, Investing was eroding FXStreet’s edge, Monguió said.

“Using AI to rewrite exclusive content from competitors is a threat to journalism and original content creation,” he said.

He added: “This is one of the multiple examples we have found with simple comparisons of their content to several of our articles and many other media outlets in the industry. For us, this is particularly damaging as FXStreet is one of Investing.com’s main competitors.”

 

Read on for Max's view of what this use of AI means for the industry. →

 

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One Good Text

Elizabeth Vargas anchors “Elizabeth Vargas Reports” on NewsNation. She co-hosted last week’s GOP presidential debate in Tuscaloosa with Megyn Kelly.

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Intel
 
 

⁛ News

It’s Tucker: The Tucker Carlson Network has a website and a writeup from the Wall Street Journal. He’s working with his old Daily Caller partner Neil Patel, and like Megyn Kelly using Red Seat Ventures. For now, the network seems to be just Tucker.

Takedown: NBC News has demanded that Donald Trump’s campaign remove a video that includes audio deceptively edited to seem like it comes from an NBC correspondent after the third presidential debate, two people familiar with the exchange told Semafor. The video manipulates the voice of NBC correspondent Garrett Haake, making it sound like he’s mocking Ron DeSantis’ height and claiming “nobody really gives a shit about Nikki Haley.”

Escalation: Vladimir Putin’s government issued a warrant for the great Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen on charges of “spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces.”

“The legal harassment of such a prominent and eminent journalist who has been honored for their coverage of Russia is part of a systematic effort to silence critics of the Putin regime both inside and outside the country,” said Graciela Mochkofsky, the dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where Gessen is a professor.

Benchmarks: The median salary for New York Times reporters and correspondents is $ 161,000, the New York Times Guild tells its members. Critics and columnists have a median salary around $175,000.

Be Samrt: Artificial intelligence isn’t quite ready to replace Axios’ photo editors just yet. The “Smart Brevity”-branded news organization has been using AI-generated images in advertisements for Axios Local products. But at a closer glance, many of the images appear unfinished, with gibberish words and text appearing in the background. Axios says in its mission statement that the company is exploring the possibilities of AI in journalism, but “every item will be written or produced by a real person with a real identity. There will be NO AI-written stories.* NO bots. NO fake accounts.”

In a statement to Semafor, Axios director of communications Emily Falcone said that while the business side was “experimenting with AI in audience acquisition,” the company was “not using AI in editorial content, which includes images and illustrations.”

BBC India: The difficult media politics of Narendra Modi’s India are playing out inside the BBC’s Delhi newsroom, which has been targeted by the government after a documentary investigated Modi’s role in deadly anti-Muslim riots. “While the BBC headquarters continued to support the documentary, that support did not appear to resonate in the corridors of the Delhi office,” Caravan reports. “A BBC journalist told me that Modi supporters in the office have become more emboldened since the raids following the documentary. They recalled one such supporter commenting on the raids, ‘It’s good that this happened with them. Inko thikane lagana zaroori tha’—It was necessary to show them their place.”

More: The head of the Indian technology company Appin scored a legal victory last week after the wire service Reuters temporarily removed its article, “How an Indian startup hacked the world,” to comply with a court order issued in New Delhi. But that hasn’t appeared to satisfy Appin CEO Rajat Khare’s legal team in the U.S., which is focused on pushing back against other articles detailing allegations that his company engaged in hacking for hire. According to two people familiar with the situation, the law firm Clare Locke has also threatened to sue The New Yorker, which published a detailed investigation earlier this year on India’s hacking industry and mentioned Khare and the Reuters report.

Nicolas Capt, Khare’s lawyer, told Semafor:“My client does not comment on actual or alleged legal proceedings. He defends himself judicially in all relevant jurisdictions against any attacks that target him and illegitimately damage his reputation.”

Marshall gift: MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos and one of the richest and most generous philanthropists in the world, has given her first contribution to non-profit journalism. The Marshall Project, whose coverage of criminal justice aligns with Scott’s other progressive causes, is “thrilled and grateful’ at the contribution, editor-in-chief Susan Chira said in an email. The contribution will no doubt have a wave of other non-profit news organizations scrambling to find a way to reach the reclusive Scott.

 
 

⁜ Tech


Would have been a good name: Meta staffers apparently referred to Threads internally as “Textagram.” (Threads, as “Threads,” will be launching in the EU this week.)

How the media gets TikTok wrong: Our habit of looking for political trends and influence is hard to apply to a platform that largely operates entirely outside the cycles of news and even culture, and whose relation to public culture is more like Reddit or iHeartRadio, Ryan Broderick writes. Among this year’s hits, according to his tracking: two dog videos, a gorilla video and “a girl with a taser.” But both news organization and the company’s own curated best-of-2023 list are “cherrypicking content that makes sense in aggregate and, more importantly, doesn’t feel completely irrelevant culturally.”

Wiki-India: The world’s largest democracy increasingly dominates English-language Wikipedia entries, Semafor’s J.D. Capelouto reported:. The list of top articles of 2023 was dominated by India-related topics, with the 2023 Cricket World Cup taking the No. 3 spot and two Indian films in the top 10. Taylor Swift, who was recently named as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, fell behind at No. 12, according to the Wikimedia Foundation.

 
 

☊ Audio

Heavyweights: Suitors are lining up to save Heavyweight, the critically-acclaimed narrative podcast, after Spotify canceled the series earlier this week. According to one person familiar with the situation, at least three podcast networks, including Luminary, have reached out to host Jonathan Goldstein expressing interest in the show. A Spotify spokesperson declined to comment, but reiterated a previous statement that the company is “excited to share the upcoming episode and season on Spotify, and we will work with the show creators to ensure a smooth transition for wherever these series go next.”

Moby ft. Hunter: In another sign of the news media’s increasingly questionable relevance, Hunter Biden sidestepped the mainstream media to offer his first in-depth, newsmaking interview in years to the popular 90s DJ and electronic musician Moby. He hosted the first son for a lengthy chat on his podcast last week (the duo became friends years ago amid their battles with addiction).

 
 

⁋ Publishing

Money and power: The Wall Street Journal covers Abu Dhabi’s bid for The Telegraph as a business transaction with normal economics, which nobody who has looked at the economics of the British newspaper quite believes. Axel Springer’s Mathias Döpfner told our colleague Steve Clemons he wouldn’t do the deal.

Print lives: “Magazines are merch now: Signifiers of good taste, to be displayed on the coffee table or desk to let visitors know that you don’t just mindlessly scroll at your phone,” writes Chris Black in GQ, citing the art mag Marfa Journal. My coffee table features Racquet, Stanger’s Guide, and Fare — more or less proving his point, though these are all small, infrequent objets, and anything more economically viable would probably fail to be cool enough.

 
 

✰ Hollywood

Paramount endgame: Shari Redstone, heir to her father Sumner Redstone’s media empire, is in talks to sell it to Davis Ellison, heir to his father Larry’s tech fortune, Ben Mullin reports. Totally normal business, this one!

Flickering: Candle, the private equity-backed media play led by former Disney heirs apparent, is restructuring its debt as the content bubble bursts. Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, is an eye-popping 90% off its earnings forecast, Lucas Shaw scooped.

 
 

✦ Marketing

UnFun: FabFitFun, a subscription box service for Millennial women, tried a playful Twitter ad campaign pandering to Elon Musk’s followers. A Reddit-organized backlash left them apologizing to their core subscribers.

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Hot on Semafor
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