CNET Published AI-Generated Stories. Then Its Staff Pushed Back
The revelations came during a campaign of job cuts by Red Ventures. After acquiring CNET in October 2020, the private-equity-backed marketing firm embarked on three rounds of layoffs between June of 2021 and March of this year, the latest of which reportedly slashed 10 percent of the masthead.
“That really changed the direction of the site,” says David Lumb, a CNET reporter who covers mobile technology. He and his colleagues watched as their award-winning publication known for journalism “that didn’t pull punches” pivoted to prioritize monetization.
The Verge reported that Red Ventures pressured staff to review advertiser content favorably and started pouring more resources into crafting SEO bait, articles crafted to rank highly in Google’s search results. Many of these stories included links to credit card and loan sign-ups, which paid lucrative commissions.
CNET’s new union says those changes, combined with layoffs and a freeze on promotions, led to low morale and dozens of resignations. In late 2022, staff began organizing the union, which took on new urgency when workers learned of the use of AI-generated content.
In her post about the experiment, Guglielmo wrote that CNET has humans edit and fact-check AI-authored stories and claimed the tool would give writers more time to report and test products. But it could also be used to replace those writers with lower-paid staff who simply edit the drafts that the AI engine cranks out, says John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University. Unions may not be able to stop the encroachment of generative AI, but “it’s certainly the best chance that news media, Hollywood writers, and others affected have of placing limits and maintaining some control over the creative process,” he says.
A recent wave of US media unionizations, as well as high-profile drives at companies like Amazon and Starbucks, may have helped lay the groundwork for a robot resistance of sorts. “If this had happened 10 years ago, when there was far less energy, enthusiasm, and optimism in the labor movement, you would think there was not going to be much resistance at all,” says Logan. “It’s far more likely to be the case now.”
The CNET union hopes to salvage some of the trust that its members and former colleagues worked hard to earn. In addition to protections against automation, the workers are fighting for standard union contract provisions like cost-of-living raises, industry-standard severance packages, and guaranteed job protections.
Lumb views the union as a path to securing the outlet’s legacy. “We’re looking to ensconce protections for the CNET workers who come after us and make sure there is a CNET, and one that’s recognizable,” he says.