Google is reportedly paying publishers thousands of dollars to use its AI to write stories

What could possibly go wrong.

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Google has been quietly striking deals with some publishers to use new generative AI tools to publish stories, according to a report in Adweek. The deals, reportedly worth tens of thousands of dollars a year, are apparently part of the Google News Initiative (GNI), a six-year-old program that funds media literacy projects, fact-checking tools, and other resources for newsrooms. But the move into generative AI publishing tools would be a new, and likely controversial, step for the company.

According to Adweek, the program is currently targeting a “handful” of smaller publishers. “The beta tools let under-resourced publishers create aggregated content more efficiently by indexing recently published reports generated by other organizations, like government agencies and neighboring news outlets, and then summarizing and publishing them as a new article,” Adweek reports.

In a statement to Engadget, a Google spokesperson denied the tools were used being used to "re-publish" the work of other publications. "This speculation about this tool being used to re-publish other outlets’ work is inaccurate," the spokesperson said. "The experimental tool is being responsibly designed to help small, local publishers produce high quality journalism using factual content from public data sources – like a local government’s public information office or health authority. Publishers remain in full editorial control of what is ultimately published on their site."

It’s not clear exactly how much publishers are being paid under the arrangement, though Adweek says it’s a “five-figure sum” per year. In exchange, media organizations reportedly agree to publish at least three articles a day, one weekly newsletter and one monthly marketing campaign using the tools.

Of note, publishers in the program are apparently not required to disclose their use of AI, nor are the aggregated websites informed that their content is being used to create AI-written stories on other sites. The AI-generated copy reportedly uses a color-coded system to indicate the reliability of each section of text to help human editors review the content before publishing.

In a statement to Adweek Google said it was “in the early stages of exploring ideas to potentially provide AI-enabled tools to help journalists with their work.” The spokesperson added that the AI tools “are not intended to, and cannot, replace the essential role journalists have in reporting, creating and fact-checking their articles.”

It’s not clear what Google is getting out of the arrangement, though it wouldn’t be the first tech company to pay newsrooms to use proprietary tools. The arrangement bears some similarities to the deals Facebook once struck with publishers to create live video content in 2016. The social media company made headlines as it paid publishers millions of dollars to juice its nascent video platform and dozens of media outlets opted to “pivot to video” as a result.

Those deals later evaporated after Facebook discovered it had wildly miscalculated the number of views such content was getting. The social network ended its live video deals soon after and has since tweaked its algorithm to recommend less news content. The media industry’s “pivot to video” cost hundreds of journalists their jobs, by some estimates.

While the GNI program appears to be much smaller than what Facebook attempted nearly a decade ago with live video, it will likely raise fresh scrutiny over the use of generative AI tools by publishers. Publications like CNET and Sports Illustrated have been widely criticized for attempting to pass off AI-authored articles as written by human staffers.

Update February 28, 2024, 1:10 PM ET: This story has been edited to add additional information from a Google spokesperson.