Earlier this week a regional Ohioan newspaper called The Columbus Dispatch, owned by USA Today publisher Gannett, was met with a slew of online backlash when it was discovered that the paper was using a generative AI system to produce awful, bottom-of-the-barrel synopses of local high school sports matchups.
In response, Gannett announced a pause on its AI-powered local sports efforts, which were also being tested across more of the publisher's papers: The Tennessean, AZ Central, The Courier Journal and more. (It also seems that Gannett hasn't completely halted the effort, with some of its publications still rolling out similar pieces of sports content after Gannett announced the hiatus.)
Something that's gone unreported: some of the wretched sports hits have even been published by USA Today, Gannett's crown jewel.
To retain a shred of credibility, hitting the pause button certainly seems to have been the right move. The AI-generated pieces embody the worst that AI-powered journalism has to offer: formulaic and repetitive short-form blurbs, riddled with nothingstuff descriptors — including the AI's widely-mocked use of the phrase "a close encounter of the athletic kind," which of course means absolutely nothing — and providing little in the way of quality information about the event, other than who played and what was the final score.
And Gannett isn't the only publisher using AI to cover high school sports. We noticed that Lede AI, the company powering Gannett's AI efforts, is supplying numerous other local news publishers with the same service. Like at Gannett, the articles display a drab sameness.
"A suffocating defense," reads an automated blurb from Herald & Review, an Illinois-based paper owned by Gannett rival Lee Enterprises, "helped Franklin South County handle Bloomington North 4-0 on Aug. 30 in Indiana girls high schools soccer action."
"A suffocating defense," proclaims an excerpt from the Cox Enterprises-owned Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "helped Nahunta Brantley County handle Garden City Groves 30-0 in a Georgia high school football matchup."
"A suffocating defense," reads yet another local sports article from the Philadelphia-area outlet Vista.Today, whose owner, American Community Journals, operates several digital papers in the region, "helped Upper Dublin handle Kennett 21-0 in Pennsylvania high school football action on Aug. 25."
"A suffocating defense," announces a strikingly similar piece of local sports content at Richland Source, an Ohio publication owned and operated by Source Media Properties, "helped Ontario handle Centerburg 35-0 in an Ohio high school football matchup on Aug. 25." (Source Media Properties, notably, is helmed by one Jay Allred, who also happens to be the CEO of — surprise! — Lede AI.)
Some of these opening quips are followed by a few lines of barely-there commentary. In some cases, this one-line blurb was all the machine wrote.
Engrossing stuff, we know, and that's just a taste of Lede AI's journalistic prowess. A lot of teams, apparently, experience mid-game "hibernations" — see Montco.Today, Richland Source, and The Journal Gazette & Times Courier — while Ashland Source and Richland Source have each experienced their own "close encounter of the athletic kind."
Not only is this godawful, but I googled the phrase "a close encounter of the athletic kind" to find the article and ended up finding a whole page of AI articles using it https://t.co/kqvgVL3lLk pic.twitter.com/E3i6ALou69
— Maggie Astor (@MaggieAstor) August 21, 2023
It's bad, and it's embarrassing, and worst of all, the companies that are using Lede AI to power their local sports sections are also churning out these terrible quips at an impressive scale. Richland Source boasts a staggering 80 pages of the AI-generated drivel, while the Lee Enterprises-owned Quad City Times (Iowa), The Pantagraph (Illinois), and Tuscon.com (Arizona), among other Lee subsidiaries, host seemingly thousands of results for Lede AI-spun stories between them.
If there's any bright spot, it's that for the most part, most of the AI content being produced by Lede AI clients is explicitly marked as such. Lee Enterprises, for example, credits its AI-generated stories to the "Lede AI Sports Desk," while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ascribes its AI-generated content to "Sports Bot," noting later on the page that automation was used. Source Media Properties, meanwhile, bylines its AI-spun blurbs to its "Auto News Desk."
"I'm a helpful AI and automation tool," reads the Auto News Desk's bio. "I collect, analyze, and deliver information like high school sports scores and real estate transfers. My job is to help the newsroom deliver lots more useful information while freeing up their time to do important human-powered journalism."
Not all publishers are so careful, though. American Community Journals, the Philly-area publisher, simply attributes its stories to the "ACJ Sports Staff," with no mention of "artificial intelligence," "AI," or "automation" found anywhere on the page. The only clue that the publisher gives is a link back to an app called ScoreStream, a Lede AI-partnered app designed to help users across the US follow various local sports teams.
Lee Enterprises declined to comment for the story. We also reached out to American Community Journals, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Richland Source, Ashland Source, Lede AI, and Allred for comment, but we've yet to receive any response.
Do you know anything about the use of AI in journalism? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can keep you anonymous.
Of course, a lingering question remains: who is this AI-generated garbage really for?
On its website, Lede AI promises its clients that its AI system is trained on "thousands of human-written variations, so your content never looks the same and reads beautifully." And, they say, it simply streamlines the work of human journalists, freeing up mortal employees' time to focus on more important things.
"We create reliable, readable, accurate local reporting readers want," the venture claims, "but newsrooms struggle to provide."
But as the aforementioned bevy of "suffocating defense" phrasing found peppered throughout Lede AI-generated text epitomizes, a lot of this content — in direct contrast to Lede AI's promises — looks exactly the same. And though whether something reads beautifully is subjective, we'd probably venture to say that it reads as cold as it does clunky.
Most importantly, though, it reads like it was written by someone — or in this case, something — with no concept of what actually happened, because the thing writing it wasn't actually there. While it's probably true that, in some cases, all a reader wants from a sports synopsis is to catch up on scores, we're sure that most readers who click on an article would hope for a little more substance.
And as far as the writer productivity argument goes, it seems more likely that delegating this kind of sports writing to AI ultimately nabs roles from entry-level journalists hoping to break into the local sports industry, while lowering the overall quality of a newspaper or digital publication. Sure, some stretched-thin operations might find themselves able to "cover" more regional match-ups, but that coverage certainly won't be quality.
On that note, it's worth mentioning that Gannett and Lee Enterprises have both suffered mass layoffs since May 2022, with Lee furloughing another round of employees this past February. But we're sure that has nothing to do with a turn towards automatically published, AI-written sports stories.
At the end of the day, local news is incredibly important, including local sports coverage. It's meaningful to the communities that rally around their high school teams, to hopeful young athletes hoping to get their name in the news, and to the journalists who work to bring local on-field clashes alive on paper. Automation is a slippery slope, and to lose any more local news to Lede AI feels, well, suffocating.
More on very bad AI writing: BuzzFeed Is Quietly Publishing Whole AI-Generated Articles, Not Just Quizzes
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