Publishers Worry A.I. Chatbots Will Cut Readership

The publishing industry has spent the past two decades struggling to adjust to the internet, as print circulation has plummeted and tech companies have gobbled up rivers of advertising revenue.

Now come the chatbots.

New artificial intelligence tools from Google and Microsoft give answers to search queries in full paragraphs rather than a list of links. Many publishers worry that far fewer people will click through to news sites as a result, shrinking traffic — and, by extension, revenue.

The new A.I. search tools remain in limited release, so publishers such as Condé Nast and Vice have not yet seen an effect on their business. But in an effort to prevent the industry from being upended without their input, many are pulling together task forces to weigh options, making the topic a priority at industry conferences and, through a trade organization, planning a push to be paid for the use of their content by chatbots.

“You could essentially call this the Wikipedia-ization of a lot of information,” said Bryan Goldberg, the chief executive of BDG, which publishes lifestyle and culture websites like Bustle, Nylon and Romper. “You’re bringing together Wikipedia-style answers to an infinite number of questions, and that’s just going to nuke many corners of the open web.”

Content publishers have an uneven but largely reciprocal relationship with search engines. The search sites benefit from having trusted sources of information in the results, and the publishers benefit from the traffic to their sites that the search engines generate.

Search traffic from Google accounts for half of overall visits, or more, to many sites, said Brian Morrissey, who writes The Rebooting, a media business newsletter.

“Search has been the mainstay of the publishing business on the internet,” he said.

Kyle Sutton, director of search and product at the newspaper publisher Gannett, said the relationship had, until now, been mutually beneficial.

A New Generation of Chatbots

A brave new world. A new crop of chatbots powered by artificial intelligence has ignited a scramble to determine whether the technology could upend the economics of the internet, turning today’s powerhouses into has-beens and creating the industry’s next giants. Here are the bots to know:

ChatGPT. ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence language model from a research lab, OpenAI, has been making headlines since November for its ability to respond to complex questions, write poetry, generate code, plan vacations and translate languages. GPT-4, the latest version introduced in mid-March, can even respond to images (and ace the Uniform Bar Exam).

Bing. Two months after ChatGPT’s debut, Microsoft, OpenAI’s primary investor and partner, added a similar chatbot, capable of having open-ended text conversations on virtually any topic, to its Bing internet search engine. But it was the bot’s occasionally inaccurate, misleading and weird responses that drew much of the attention after its release.

Bard. Google’s chatbot, called Bard, was released in March to a limited number of users in the United States and Britain. Originally conceived as a creative tool designed to draft emails and poems, it can generate ideas, write blog posts and answer questions with facts or opinions.

Ernie. The search giant Baidu unveiled China’s first major rival to ChatGPT in March. The debut of Ernie, short for Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration, turned out to be a flop after a promised “live” demonstration of the bot was revealed to have been recorded.

“While all search results are taking from our data and, from our perspective, crawling our content, aggregating our content, there is the return there of them driving traffic to our site,” Mr. Sutton said. “So I think that relationship is kind of first and foremost what we want to see maintained.”

The new offerings could change all of that, said Barbara Peng, the president of the digital news brand Insider. Microsoft is incorporating the chatbot into Bing, its search engine. Google’s search chatbot, Bard, is separate from its main search engine.

“This will be revolutionary,” Ms. Peng said, adding, “It will take some time, and there is a good portion of hype mixed in there, too, but I do think it will change the relationship people have with finding and consuming information.”

The impact of “generative” A.I., which can generate text, images and other media from prompts, has become a top priority in discussions among publishers. A conference in New York in May, the World Congress of News Media, will feature keynote speeches on the issue, according to a schedule on its website.

Vice Media has created a task force in recent months to examine its own approach, said Cory Haik, the chief operating officer. “It will have a huge impact on publishing in ways that we can’t even get our heads around yet,” she predicted.

The Washington Post announced on Tuesday that it had appointed a deputy business editor to lead an internal group looking at A.I.’s impact on The Post’s journalism and digital strategy.

News Corp’s chief executive, Robert Thomson, who for years has led a push to get tech companies to pay for news content, said in an interview: “If you don’t get out early and define what the issues are and the obligations, then you will find yourself on the defensive.”

Mr. Thomson said tech companies should pay to use publishers’ content to produce results from A.I. chatbots. The chatbots generate their results by synthesizing information from the internet. He added that News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post among other outlets, was in talks with “a couple of companies” about the use of its content, though he declined to specify which ones.

“There is a recognition at their end that discussions are necessary,” he said.

Roger Lynch, the chief executive of Condé Nast, which owns titles like Vogue, Vanity Fair and Glamour, agreed that content creators should be compensated. He said one upside for publishers was that audiences might soon find it harder to know what information to trust on the web, so “they’ll have to go to trusted sources.”

The News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 outlets around the world, including The New York Times, is working on principles that it says should guide the use and development of A.I. systems, and regulation around them, to protect publishers. According to a draft, the principles say the use of publisher content for the development of A.I. should require “a negotiated agreement and explicit permission.”

The guidelines also call on tech companies to “provide sufficient value” for high-quality, trustworthy journalism content and brands, and state that any new laws or regulations that make exceptions to copyright law for A.I. must not weaken protections for publishers.

“Without these protections, publishers — far too many of whom already struggle to survive in the online ecosystem due to marketplace imbalances — face an existential crisis that threatens our communities’ access to reliable and trustworthy journalism,” the document states.

Danielle Coffey, executive vice president of the News Media Alliance, said a solution could be found in the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a bill that would allow publishers to collectively negotiate with tech companies over revenue sharing and, as written, would account for the use of content by generative A.I. The bill, which failed to pass last year, is expected to be reintroduced on Thursday by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana.

Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s head of Bing, said in an interview that directing users to click through to publishers was “a top goal.” And although the new Bing has been around for less than two months, the data was “already showing that we are driving, in fact, more traffic to publishers,” he said.

“Part of the reason that traffic is up is that we don’t just do a good job of answering the question, but we provide links,” he said, pointing to footnotes in the answers on Bing’s chatbot that show the information’s source.

Mr. Mehdi said Microsoft was at the beginning of its conversations with publishers around the new search. “It is our intention that we would like to share incremental revenue that happens in that chat experience,” he said.

Microsoft is considering showing more articles from a certain publisher below the footnote or selling ads against the links in the chat answer and splitting the proceeds, Mr. Mehdi said.

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement that the company was “deeply committed to supporting a healthy and vibrant news ecosystem” and would put a priority on sending traffic.

“This is the very early days of testing an experience in Bard, and we’ll be welcoming conversations with publishers to get their input,” she said.

For the past two years, BDG has focused on products like live events, email newsletters and premium branded content to limit exposure to the whims of search traffic, Mr. Goldberg said.

“I think the best publishers had already anticipated this was coming years ago and are many years into our transformation,” he said.

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