Just a week after urging its writers to incorporate AI tools like ChatGPT into their workflow, Insider has laid off 10 percent of its staff.
"As you know, our industry has been under significant pressure for more than a year. The economic headwinds that have hurt many of our clients and partners are also affecting us," Insider president Barbara Peng wrote in an email to staff sent this morning.
"Unfortunately, to keep our company healthy and competitive, we need to reduce the size of our team," Peng continued, adding that "the reduction would affect about 10 percent" of the publication's workforce.
SCOOP: Insider is laying off 10% of its team, according to a memo sent out this morning by president Barbara Peng.
Here’s the memo: pic.twitter.com/IOTQpeRo7X
— Corbin Bolies (@CorbinBolies) April 20, 2023
It's been a bruising year for the media industry, with numerous publishers laying off swaths of employees. And Insider's layoffs, while perhaps not directly related to the incorporation of AI, speak to a troubling new pattern of media layoffs and AI announcements going hand-in-hand — if only, perhaps, as a way of softening the bad news to investors.
In Insider's case, it's not hard to zoom out and see connections.
Just last month, the CEO of the site's owner Axel Springer, Mathias Döepfner, noted in an internal letter to employees — in the midst of a round of Axel Springer layoffs, no less — that "artificial intelligence has the potential to make independent journalism better than it ever was — or simply replace it."
"Understanding this change is essential to a publishing house's future viability," Döepfner wrote in the letter, which was obtained last month by The Guardian. "Only those who create the best original content will survive."
Per the Guardian, Döepfner wrote elsewhere in the memo that AI tech like OpenAI's ChatGPT will cause a "revolution" in how people deal with information, and could even become better at some tasks than human reporters.
This same ride-the-AI-wave-or-don't enthusiasm was echoed by Insider editor-in-chief Nich Carlson earlier this month, who in an email greenlighting Insider staffers to use tools like ChatGPT in their writing said that AI would make Insider "faster and better."
"I've spent many hours working with ChatGPT, and I can already tell having access to it is going to make me a better global editor-in-chief for Insider," Carlson wrote. "My takeaway after a fair amount of experimentation with ChatGPT is that generative AI can make all of you better editors, reporters, and producers, too."
Whether AI is actually mature enough to start stamping out human writing jobs is as hazy as ever, but the concept is clearly catnip for executives and investors.
A major chunk of Axel Springer's cash, for instance, comes from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), the global investment management arm of Canada's Pension Plan Investments (CPPI), with CPPI's managing director Andrej Babache sitting on Axel Springer's supervisory board. As listed on its website, CPPI additionally has a massive private equity stake in Red Ventures, the publisher behind CNET and Bankrate.
Sound familiar? Both sites quietly started running AI-generated content this year — but were widely criticized when it turned out the content was riddled with factual errors and plagiarism.
None of this is to say that there's some broader conspiracy to replace human journalists with AI. But there certainly seems to be a pattern, and investors have made it clear that they love AI. And if that's where a publication's funding bodies are leaning? Shifting towards AI in the midst of industry turmoil and layoffs might just keep them happy.
It sucks, but it sadly might be inevitable.
Case in point, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced today that the award-winning Buzzfeed News is shutting down after more than a decade of work. BuzzFeed, of course, has also been in the news for using AI to churn out SEO bait (a spokesperson was quick to say that no jobs were being replaced by AI.)
But Peretti, strikingly, made sure to mention AI in his layoff memo to staffers.
"We will empower our editorial teams at all of our brands to do the very best creative work and build an interface where that work can be packaged and brought to advertisers more effectively," Peretti wrote in the sorry letter. "And we will bring more innovation to clients in the form of creators, AI, and cultural moments that can only happen across BuzzFeed, Complex, HuffPost, Tasty and First We Feast."
More on notable layoffs: CNET Hits Staff With Layoffs After Disastrous Pivot to AI Journalism