Microsoft has decided against renewing the contracts of dozens of journalists and editorial staff at its news organizations, including MSN, planning instead to replace them with artificial intelligence (AI).
According to The Seattle Times, roughly 50 contract workers in the US were notified last Wednesday that after June 30 they would no longer be needed.
On May 30, The Guardian reported that 27 staffers employed by PA Media, formerly the Press Association, were similarly notified that their services would no longer be needed past the end of June as a result of Microsoft’s outsourcing of formerly human-held jobs to AI.
Full-time workers employed directly by Microsoft who perform similar tasks will be retained by the company.
“Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis,” a statement released by a Microsoft read. “This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, re-deployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”
Microsoft pays news organizations to use their content on MSN, Microsoft News and Microsoft Edge. As a result, contract workers do not report on original stories but are responsible for using algorithms to select currently trending stories from publishing partners and for editing the content and headlines.
“It’s been semi-automated for a few months but now it’s full speed ahead,’’ one of the terminated employees told The Seattle Times. “It’s demoralizing to think machines can replace us but there you go.’’
Apart from editing articles, these employees manually curate articles to ensure a mix of political opinions and to prevent untrustworthy stories from being published.
AI and the newsroom
In the curation process, staff have to stick to strict editorial guidelines. As a result, terminated employees have expressed skepticism over how well AI would work on curating content with fewer humans to monitor the technology, especially in ensuring that harmful or inappropriate stories do not get published.
Media outlets have already been using machine learning for content management for several years.
Tech companies such as Google are investing funds into expanding the use of AI in journalism and have designed a training course for journalists on how they can incorporate machine learning into their newsrooms.
News in the time of coronavirus
Despite Microsoft’s insistence that the layoffs are not a result of the coronavirus pandemic, media outlets around the world and in the US have been heavily impacted by the outbreak.
The news industry was already struggling before the pandemic, with many local newspapers suffering from a drop in the number of people buying print editions due to the wide availability of online news, forcing publications to close or make a permanent shift from print to digital.
The coronavirus outbreak has only made matters worse. While the pandemic has resulted in record readership due to a demand for local news, many news publications rely on advertising for revenue. However, the pandemic has caused advertising to dry up across newspapers and online, leading many journalists having to take pay cuts or losing their jobs entirely as publications struggle to stay afloat.
While the coronavirus pandemic is currently compounding issues in the news industry, the threat of automation could make finding a job elsewhere even more challenging for furloughed journalists.
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