By Sharon Almirall
Photos by Ann Lockhart

“I believe AI (artificial intelligence) is absolutely going to play a role in journalism’s future,” speaker Corey Hutchins told Colorado Press Women members and guests in a Zoom presentation on March 16.

As the number of journalists in newsrooms dwindles, Hutchins sees a crisis in newsrooms. One example he mentioned is the ability for newsrooms to cover local news such as sports scores at the high school level.

Hutchins is co-director of the Colorado College Journalism Institute, and he has researched how several Colorado newsrooms use AI tools. He writes the weekly e-newsletter “Inside the News in Colorado,” which is underwritten by the Colorado Media Project. He studies what is changing and how the news industry is adapting to the change in the digital age. He has been looking at developments in news in Colorado for the past 10 years, and one he is watching is artificial journalism.

“I remember seeing something about AI in journalism in 2014 when the Los Angeles Times broke the news of an earthquake about three minutes after the earthquake happened. They were able to do that using a chatbot they called ‘Quakebot’ which was an AI tool that was plugged into the Richter Scale.” That data was used to populate boilerplate to write the story,” Hutchins explained, adding he was unsure any editor ever saw it.

Hutchins described The Denver Post’s use of a company called Hero Sports that, like the Quakebot, created an AI algorithm that put boilerplate language together for school prep sports stories and allowed coaches to plug in information from a game to generate a story on the web. It was disclosed as automated high school sports content. They stopped doing this in 2020 apparently.

There are fewer journalists. At one point, he said there were about 600 journalists covering Denver news. He said The Denver Post has an estimated 60 reporters today, and that means they can’t cover every high school sports event.  

In 2020, Hutchins found out that Denver’s 9News got into AI when it contracted with Hoodline.com to generate automated stories with topics such as real estate news; there was a story about national cupcake day and the four most popular spots in the Washington Park neighborhood.

“Why would local news organizations do this?” Hutchins asks. “I think it is about capitalism, and I am not sure it’s about public service.”

ChatGPT (generative pre-trained transformer) was released to the public by Open AI in the spring of 2023.

“Journalists went into a total freakout – either for or against it. When I asked journalists about ChatGPT, some said ‘no way.’ Some are now saying they would probably use AI. People are less knee-jerk about it,” Hutchins concludes.

He reached out to news managers around the state to find out how they were dealing with AI. Some said ChatGPT was helping journalists do their work.

A reporter at Colorado Politics took AI to a whole different level when he created a chat bot using ChatGPT that created a fake artificial intelligence-fueled candidate to run in the Denver mayor’s race. The artificial candidate developed a distinctive voice the more it “campaigned” and wound up with a campaign manifesto that could have fit with the real candidates.

A year ago, one of the biggest newsrooms in the state told Hutchins they would not use Chat GPT. He heard from other newsrooms a year ago that they would use some ChatGPT but would use it responsibly.

Fast forward a year, and he did research on Colorado newsrooms again to see how things have changed.  Some newsrooms are using ChatGPT for production such as copy editing. Otter AI is a meeting assistant tool used by some that takes notes as well as doing  transcriptions.

Hutchins  cited research of newsrooms that said they used AI done by the London School of Economics and Google News Initiative which found 75 percent of newsrooms are saying they use AI for news gathering. Some 90 percent said they are using AI for news production and 80 percent for distribution.  This doesn’t mean they are using AI to write a story but using it to proofread, transcribe audio, create images or do translations.

“News managers and journalists want to have human eyes on anything before it gets published,” Hutchins says. Newsrooms are having meetings to determine how they will or will not use AI.

 AI can be used to sift through data, look for trends and to summarize. And if you don’t have a reporter to sit through a three-hour city council meeting, you can have an AI product watch the meeting on YouTube, and with a chat bot, a summary can be produced within seconds.

To demonstrate how AI image generation works, Hutchins wrote a story about how the police in Colorado Springs  asking the local TV station to take down a video. He asked DALL-E to create an image of a police officer talking to a reporter in a newsroom. He then asked his audience what they thought. About half said they didn’t mind; others presented issues. One criticism that Hutchins received was from a reader who said use of the art cheapened Hutchins’ work. Another described the AI-created image  as biased, lacking diversity.

“I do not have an editor who edits my newsletter every week. So, I will sometimes put my draft through ChatGPT and ask it to identify any typos, errors, grammatical mistakes or duplicate words.” Hutchins said.

News organizations have differing views. The New York Times has sued Open AI for training AI chatbots on its stories, while Associated Press licensed their archives and is paid for any of its stories being used to train ChatGPT.

Journalists also face AI stealing work and using a spinner to change enough words into synonyms and then put it online as an original. Hutchins described spinners as “a machine almost like a thesaurus” where someone’s work is put in and a “repurposed” story is spit out for someone to post on their website and make money off clicks.

Hutchins says there are AI companies writing fake obituaries. He once saw an obituary on three or four sites of a  national reporter who was Hutchins’ age. Both the death and the writing syntax struck him as odd.  He reached this person by phone, and the journalist answered by saying, “I’m not dead.” They figured out someone with the same name had died elsewhere in the country, and AI searched the internet to find social media accounts with that name and picked the one whose death would drive the most traffic to the story – the famous reporter.

He has experimented with using a text-to-video tool that he could link to his newsletter. He says he might use AI in limited ways.

Microsoft has gotten into the AI business and is announcing partnerships with news organizations.

“Part of me says it’s nice to see companies wanting to help news organizations, but part of me is skeptical,” Hutchins said.

Asked if there are any laws limiting AI, Hutchins said, “I don’t know the answer to this.”

Noting that unions are seeking contracts with protection from AI, Hutchins said, “A lot of worry is how many jobs will be lost.”

At Colorado College, Hutchins teaches Writing the News, Inbox Journalism: Writing for Newsletters, The Future and Sustainability of Local News, as well as Introduction to Journalism, and more. He was named Educator of the Year by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2023. For nearly a decade he wrote about the local news industry for Columbia Journalism Review, and in another life, he covered politics in South Carolina where he was twice named journalist of the year by the state press association. He recently wrote the chapter on media for the once-a-decade book “American Decades.”

Click here to view the entire program on YouTube.

Out of curiosity, CPW Web Manager Sandy Nance ran the above story through ChapGPT and asked for an edit. The following version – much shorter — is what it produced in seconds. Sharon notes that ChatGPT changed the tone and syntax while Sandy thinks ChatGPT manufactured things Hutchins never said, tended to editorialize on AI’s behalf and left out lots of interesting stories he told.

AI in the Newsroom: Shaping the Future of Journalism

During a recent virtual presentation to members and guests of the Colorado Press Women on March 16, speaker Corey Hutchins emphasized the inevitable role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the evolution of journalism. Hutchins, co-director of the Colorado College Journalism Institute, highlighted the pressing challenges faced by contemporary newsrooms, notably the diminishing presence of journalists. He cited the dwindling capacity of newsrooms to cover local stories, such as high school sports scores, as a poignant example of the crisis gripping the industry.

Drawing on his research into AI utilization within Colorado newsrooms, Hutchins delved into specific implementations of AI tools. Notably, he referenced the groundbreaking use of AI by publications like the Los Angeles Times, which deployed a chatbot dubbed ‘Quakebot’ to swiftly report on seismic events mere minutes after their occurrence in 2014. This innovative approach, leveraging AI to generate news content based on real-time data, showcased the potential for automation in journalistic workflows.

Hutchins further explored instances of AI integration in local news coverage, such as The Denver Post’s partnership with Hero Sports to produce automated sports stories for web publication. However, he cautioned against viewing AI adoption solely through the lens of efficiency, raising critical questions about its societal implications and motivations driving its implementation.

Reflecting on the evolving attitudes toward AI among journalists, Hutchins noted a spectrum of reactions ranging from initial skepticism to gradual acceptance. While some expressed reservations, others acknowledged the potential benefits of AI in augmenting journalistic endeavors. Through his interactions with news managers statewide, Hutchins gleaned insights into the diverse approaches taken by newsrooms in navigating the AI landscape.

The proliferation of AI across newsrooms, as evidenced by its use in tasks ranging from data analysis to content production, underscores its transformative impact on the journalistic process. While AI offers unprecedented capabilities for information synthesis and dissemination, ethical considerations loom large in its deployment, as highlighted by Hutchins’ examination of AI-generated content and its reception.

As news organizations grapple with the implications of AI integration, questions regarding editorial oversight, accountability, and job security come to the fore. Hutchins elucidated on the complex interplay between technological innovation and journalistic practice, citing instances of AI-generated content and its ramifications on journalistic integrity.

Looking ahead, Hutchins underscored the imperative for ongoing dialogue and critical reflection within the journalism community as AI continues to reshape the media landscape. With emerging partnerships between technology giants like Microsoft and news organizations, the ethical and regulatory dimensions of AI warrant sustained scrutiny and engagement from stakeholders across the industry.

In the face of uncertainty surrounding the legal frameworks governing AI usage and the potential displacement of jobs, Hutchins emphasized the need for proactive measures, including union negotiations, to safeguard the interests of journalists. As an educator at Colorado College, Hutchins remains at the forefront of shaping the next generation of journalists, instilling a nuanced understanding of AI’s role in the evolving media ecosystem. His dedication to fostering informed discourse and ethical practice underscores the ongoing quest for sustainability and innovation in journalism.