Publishers create task forces to oversee AI programs

What started out as an informal dabbling with generative AI technology inside publishers’ newsrooms has developed into a full-fledged focus area for some media companies. 

New teams are being formed within BuzzFeed, BridgeTower Media, Forbes, Ingenio and Trusted Media Brands, all dedicated to overseeing AI initiatives within different parts of their respective companies, ranging from editorial to tech.

Editorial executives previously told Digiday in February they were encouraging employees in their newsrooms to familiarize themselves with generative AI and chatbots like ChatGPT to see if the technology could help them perform their jobs better.

Now, some companies have formalized teams to lead AI-driven experiments and projects:

  • BuzzFeed has a “brain trust” of about a dozen people that formed in December 2022, a spokesperson said. While it’s an “informal” and “fluid” group, the team consists of CEO Jonah Peretti, svp of editorial Jess Probus and founding editor and executive director of growth trends Peggy Wang. It also includes representatives from the tech and engineering departments, including a machine learning specialist.
  • BridgeTower Media has a seven-person team that was put together in mid-March by David Saabye, svp of digital product management at the B2B media company, to focus on AI experimentation and guidelines. 
  • Forbes also formed a seven-person group in March charged with discussing and establishing AI-related policies, a spokesperson said. The group includes representatives from the company’s corporate communications, human resources, legal, data privacy, editorial and cybersecurity teams. 
  • Ingenio hired director of growth, Geoff Skow, a year ago to oversee AI initiatives. Skow works with a team of five people from editorial, engineering and UX design to determine how to use generative AI to grow Ingenio’s audience, said president of media Josh Jaffe.
  • Trusted Media Brands put together a team of nine people a month ago, led by chief technology officer Nick Contardo and chief business officer Cameron Saless. The group was formed to “talk to other leaders at this company to hear what they think about [AI and machine learning] and how this could impact them and what we could do with it,” Contardo said.

TMB’s task force is discussing one or two “mid-size” AI projects the company can invest in over the next six months, Contardo told Digiday, but holistically has three purposes: sharing AI learnings between departments, determining which AI initiatives to test and deciding on company policy around the usage of generative AI and ML technology. The team is made up of managers from several teams, including business development, editorial and sales and marketing.

“Our approach isn’t going to be to take things like AI or ML and replace employees,” Contardo said. Instead, the focus is to streamline certain operations and see if advancements in the technology can improve the surfacing of content to readers, he added. 

AI experiments “have been bubbling up organically throughout” BridgeTower Media, Saabye said. The focus of the new task force is to “identify [the] use cases, put some structure behind them, and then at the same time build out the policy… essentially, the safety rails of how this can be used at the company,” he said.

Most of BridgeTower’s AI team are managers and come from its creative and production, SEO and web development, editorial, marketing, data businesses and legal council departments. “They represent the core parts of the business where we see an opportunity for some AI functions to have a material effect,” said Saabye.

The team is focused on three things when it comes to the use of AI: “cost savings, increased velocity and new products,” Saabye said. In other words, looking at how AI can replace third-party vendors and bring down the company’s operational costs, as well as using it to boost productivity by conducting tasks faster and better than before, such as highlighting key trends within a story to improve SEO. Lastly, the BridgeTower team is experimenting with AI tools to see if they can create products to analyze trends or large data sets.

The BridgeTower team is also tasked with determining the quality, safety and ethics around the use of generative AI, Saabye added. 

“We are looking at having the company’s stamp of approval on what you can do today and how you can use it. And then just like you do with data privacy, having that be a regular function of the organization to continually assess and evaluate your policy and your actions,” Saabye said. “That’s why we have legal represented on [the team] as well. It’s not that we’re constantly concerned about doing something illegal, so much as there are so many unknowns particularly in the areas of IP [and] government regulations in this area.”

But a number of publishers are still taking a more organic approach to testing AI internally. Noah Weissman, evp of content at Team Whistle, is leading AI efforts at the company, but not with a formalized team. Each manager is leading tests within their own departments, he said.  

“Our head of talent [has] a very different use case than our head of production. But it is an absolute innovation and strategy mandate to use it,” Weissman said. “It’s my job as one of the leaders on our team to make sure that people are adopting it so that we don’t get left behind in the past.”

Gannett doesn’t have a dedicated AI-focused group, but the company’s head of product, Renn Turiano, is overseeing AI efforts with managers across the company, a spokesperson said. Chris Lloyd, vp and gm at Gannett’s product review site Reviewed, is looking at AI opportunities for affiliate revenue, for example.

Not all media executives are convinced that generative AI technology will be the solution to the media industry’s ailments, however, even if their leadership is entirely onboard. 

“My CEO is fucking obsessed with AI… but I’m not totally convinced,” said one publishing executive on the condition of anonymity.

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