by Andrew Cochran

Microsoft News is upping its use of algorithms for certain editorial functions, handing out lay-off notices to contract journalists in the US and UK. Machines have worked alongside Microsoft editors for some time, assisting with editorial tasks for MSN, Microsoft News apps, and pages on Microsoft’s browser, Edge.

The layoffs signal a shift from AI systems augmenting journalistic tasks to replacing news jobs.

Multiple accounts say the functions converted to algorithmic work include story selection and placement, optimizing headlines, and picking supplementary material, such as images. Microsoft says the move has nothing to do with post-COVID economics and is part of its natural business evolution.

In Seattle, near the company’s corporate headquarters, the Seattle Times says the cuts involve ‘dozens’ of contract workers. In London, The Guardian says about 27 people received notices at Press Association, a leading UK press agency that supplies editorial services to Microsoft. Full-time staffers are unaffected, and the Times says, ‘they perform functions similar to those being let go.’

UPDATE: The Guardian reports the Microsoft AI system incorrectly selected a picture for a news story about racism, associating the wrong image for a mixed-race member of the band, Little Mix.

OUR TAKE

  • AI systems doing desk editing functions is not new. Other big media companies have used AI systems in desk tasks for some time. The difference is that those uses have been characterized as ‘adding capacity’ or ‘enabling journalists to reallocate their time.’
  • Outright replacement of journalistic jobs is a change from prevailing views. ‘AI will replace news roles but not news jobs’ has been a mantra at panels and in publications since AI systems started appearing in newsrooms.
  • This signals that a major AI company believes its technology is ready to replace some human functions in the news industry at scale. Nothing in early reports indicates Microsoft has a system ready for third-party deployment. The company may only select to keep its capabilities in-house to derive a competitive advantage at a lower cost.

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