We all hoover up each other's stuff don't we?

By: Rob Corbidge, 20 July 2023

a man hoovering, words and letters on the ground, 8K

Google is revealing a news-writing tool called Genesis - which will in some way try to automate the long-standing habit in journalism of using other people's contributions to grow the full picture of a story. Sounds... interesting. 

What is originality or an exclusive in the current age of digital media? They do exist of course, often corralled behind paywall barricades with vital snippets allowed to escape to other sites.

Yet such reasonably secure corrals are mostly the preserve of the specialist publisher, or those with large subscriber bases.

Google has of late even devalued being the origin of news content, as SEO specialists have noted, placing stories on aggregator sites ahead of actual original sources.

A great deal of journalism is derivative, if by derivative we mean based on another source. In many cases, by definition, writing a news story involves slotting it into an existing narrative, collectively composed by other journalists, and finding out how it alters the story's trajectory.

One of my personal finest technical moments in my early career as a reporter came late one night, when I, as the junior, had been left to watch over the newsdesk until the wee small hours. And on that night, a rival publication had an excellent splash story, superior to our own. There was no choice but to "lift it", as the phrase goes.

An urgent re-write was required. In one hour it had to be ready to publish. I can't even remember what the story was, but at the moment it was my whole focus in the world. 

Thankfully, our rivals had lost their editorial courage somewhat, and the second or third angle in the story was better than the top one they'd gone with: a rapid fingers-of-fire effort was required, all at the same time as putting some unwelcomed calls in to those named in the article to see if more reaction was forthcoming. I only needed one or two fresh quotes to make it look like our own work, after all, right?

"Our piece was better than theirs" the editor told me a few days later. And it was. But, it was still only a technical achievement: I didn't get the original story.

Incidentally, Glide Publishing Platform is designed and built by people who understand the need for a system that operates both quickly and simply. Experiences such as mine have fed into that substantial pool of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Google has this week shown its news generation product to a select group of senior media executives. The tool "known internally by the working title Genesis, can take in information - details of current events, for example - and generate news content," according to the NYT.

Tellingly, the NYT also said :"Some executives who saw Google’s pitch described it as unsettling. Two people said it seemed to take for granted the effort that went into producing accurate and artful news stories."

So is Genesis the ultimate rewrite machine? Will Sundar Pichai decide the murkiness around its development is no good, and launch it at a spectacular event where he addresses the audience from a huge podium made of pure cold, dark news matter, proclaiming himself the Master of Events.

Probably not, but if they've made something that doesn't contradict itself, or present the false or unconfirmed as being fact, then maybe they have something. I don't believe we're at the point where the nuances of uncertainty can be easily computed on an affordable level, but we shall see.

Being of the party that believes you just have to let tech fly and do what it will (apart from paying for looted AI training content) I'm not concerned by Genesis. Quite the reverse in fact, being keen to see what it does, and why it's "unsettling". If that sentiment comes from how good it is, then we have to deal with it. 

It has to be noted that the flaws in generative AI start to become apparent with prolonged use, and it's my own experience that, like any system, you start to find workarounds for flaws and those workarounds become habit. I'd be surprised if Genesis was any different, but I'd like to be surprised, on a technical level.

One thing I can guarantee. It won't make 1am phone calls to irate and slightly drunk politicians on a Saturday night to get the fresh quotes, even if they're, "Oh **** off!"