AI chatbots – distracting gimmick or must-have for your media?

With the FT announcing its AI chatbot the debate rages about whether this is mere gimmickry, or a serious step forward for publishers and readers alike. Our point of view is that while it is still far from perfect, the AI chatbot has firmly staked a claim as a must-have for news publishers.

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While generative AI still dominates minds and headlines alike, publishers’ use of AI for less contentious purposes are evolving from drawing board to daily reality. The idea of chatbots both to help readers find information, and in the process repurpose legacy content has been talked about for some ten years but only now are we starting to see the results.

Ask FT is an AI chatbot, trained on the Financial Times’ own archives, and available only to readers to rapidly find straight answers to their questions. Forbes and Snopes have also announced AI chatbots for the same purpose.

On the face of it Ask FT and other AI chatbots are a win on many levels for publishers.  

Firstly they don’t threaten journalism, in fact they add value to existing journalism and can help resurface legacy content that might otherwise lie mouldering in the data vault.  

Secondly they offer clear user benefit since readers can now quickly get answers to daily questions and their favourite publication becomes an instantly accessible database of trusted reporting in a way that keyword search can only dream of.  

Thirdly, AI chatbots offer a solution to a problem that we see clients tearing their hair out about. Upgrade Media works with a large number of new publishers and one of the most frequent issues that comes up about modernising publishing is the question of tagging. Different approaches to tagging keywords, combined with the glorious (if sometimes baffling) richness of colloquial French means that, as one leading newspaper pointed out to us, there can be as many as eight ways of referring to a football team. Which in turn means that guessing how that information has been meta tagged over the years is a major headache.  By moving away from keywords, AI holds out the promise of ending that confusion with AI able to learn very easily from the context that a number of terms refer to the same thing. 

Fourthly, and by no means least that AI chatbot represents value to the publisher since the Financial Times sees the chatbot as a premium product and offers it only to subscribers – another reason for readers to sign up, and pay up.  

Of course there are teething troubles, and there are journalists quick to find them, but there is also a simple answer to that. Amongst the current crop of AI engines if ChatGPT hallucinates and responds falsely, the user has to be the one to find out the truth and correct it because Chat GPT cannot access the Web in real time. Gemini (née Bard), on the other hand, has a fact check function that searches the web (unsurprisingly since it is Google’s offspring). An AI chatbot dedicated to a publisher’s content can, and should, also fact check itself, linking to the source articles and giving them new life and relevance in the process.  Not all publications have the wealth of valued data that justifies an AI chatbot, but most of the daily press we speak to not only have it but value themselves accordingly.

Speaking to colleagues at The Times a few months ago they explained that the idea of not integrating AI into a newspaper today was comparable to someone in the 90s rejecting the use of a search feature on their website. Now AI will be the search engine and it will be a foolish publisher that doesn’t take note.

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