Connect with us

Business

Column: The depressing fall of Sports Illustrated reveals the real tragedy of AI

Published

on

Column: The depressing fall of Sports Illustrated reveals the real tragedy of AI

Quick, name five classic American magazines.

Did you say Sports Illustrated? I did. And I’m not even a sports guy. But if you’re of a certain age, you know Sports Illustrated. Along with, say, People, Time and National Geographic, it has long lined the dentist offices, neighbors’ doormats and coffee tables of your life. It’s an institution. At one point, it boasted 3 million subscribers. It’s won numerous awards and accolades. The evening news would do whole segments about its swimsuit issue.

Today, it’s pumping out third-rate articles by AI-generated writers in a darkening corner of the internet. It’s a stunning fall for one of the great icons of American sports journalism. So what happened? How did such a celebrated publication get here? The answers point us to one of the most pressing — and unlikely — dangers posed by the ongoing AI boom.

First, the facts: On Monday, the tech and culture site Futurism published an expose that revealed Sports Illustrated was publishing bizarre and badly written articles attributed to authors that didn’t exist.

The reporters traced the fake authors’ headshots to a website that sells AI-generated images, and sources told them that the stories they allegedly wrote were produced by AI, too. “The content is absolutely AI-generated,” one said, “no matter how much they say that it’s not.” When contacted, Arena Group, Sports Illustrated’s publisher, deleted all of the suspicious content and, in a statement, denied it was created by AI. Arena blamed the mess on AdVon, a third-party company hired to produce content.

Advertisement

The saga has been heatedly discussed by journalists and media watchers, and lamented by onetime fans of the iconic brand. Generative AI very much remains a hot-button topic, and the question of whether it’s ethical — or a good idea — to use AI has driven much of the conversation.

But it’s worth backing up and looking at the bigger picture here, and the conditions that led to the use of such sketchy AI in the first place. Because this story is as much about bad management, sheer laziness and how relentlessly profit-seeking corporate management can erode our cultural institutions as it is about any given technology.

Sports Illustrated was already in dire shape long before Arena brought in the AI. Amid economic challenges that confront all print media, the magazine’s revenue and subscriber base declined over the 2010s. It repeatedly downsized, switched from a weekly to a monthly publication schedule and was sold by its owner, Time Inc., to a company called Authentic Brands Group, or ABG, which is in the business of inking lucrative licensing deals. ABG then sold a 10-year license to publish Sports Illustrated to our new friends at Arena Group.

As a result of this arrangement, Sports Illustrated branding is now showing up both on dietary supplements and on thousands of hastily produced blog posts. After all, on the publication side of the business, “Arena’s options for generating revenue are somewhat limited, encouraging a daily churn of articles,” as the New York Times reports. “Hundreds of sites dedicated to individual teams — helmed by non-staff writers paid small sums — were created with little oversight and diluted what it meant for ‘Sports Illustrated’ to write something.” Arena has continued to fire editors and staffers, while enforcing weekly quotas of article production. (On the licensing side, business is booming — ABG says it has doubled Sports Illustrated’s earnings. That’s a lot of Sports Illustrated-brand diet pills. It also launched an online SI-branded casino in 2021.)

In other words, Sports Illustrated is run by not one but two vampiric entities with markedly little interest in the magazine’s erstwhile core mission — you know, the thing that made it so beloved in the first place, doing good sports journalism — and every interest in maximizing profits at every opportunity. And they have squeezed the lemon until it was dry.

Advertisement

And here’s where the AI comes in.

Not as a tool deployed by forward-looking executives eager to embrace the future, but as a last-ditch effort to extract the final bits of value from the pieces of something that’s already broken. Sports Illustrated has already slashed full-time staff, spun up a content mill with freelancers pumping out content for a fraction of the price, and let editorial standards sink into the gutter. The AI play is an arrow out of the same quiver.

It’s increasingly clear that to those in the content generation business — worth noting maybe that the original founders of Sports Illustrated would probably bristle at such a term — AI has become popular as a relatively cheap, wholly unimaginative way to attempt to generate value with the lowest amount of effort or investment.

To wit: This year has already seen a rash of AI scandals in the media world. The staffers of G/O Media, the publisher of popular sites including Gizmodo and the Onion, revolted after their publisher deployed generative AI to produce bland, error-ridden content. The once-venerable tech site CNET was caught — also by Futurism, incidentally — publishing AI-generated stories without disclosing them as such. BuzzFeed controversially announced that it would be using AI to generate posts like its trademark quizzes, and then disbanded its human-staffed News division.

Most recently, Gannett, the publisher of USA Today and many other newspapers, was accused of publishing AI-generated review content — curiously, it too blamed AdVon, the same company Sports Illustrated fingered in its statement on the matter.

Advertisement

All of these stories have one major thread in common — each of the media institutions in question had been facing economic challenges, and was run by an owner whose interest was not in producing a quality publication but gaming the algorithm to maximize profits while minimizing staff. As with SI, all were in dire straits before AI entered the equation.

G/O Media, formerly GMG Media, formerly Gawker Media, had been bankrupted by a malicious lawsuit funded by Silicon Valley titan Peter Thiel, repackaged and sold to Univision, then sold again to a private equity firm, Great Hill Partners. In a push to maximize revenues, Great Hill set about firing staffers, introducing spammy autoplay ads and asking staff to write more slideshows, which require readers to click more times than regular stories. In short, a nakedly profit-seeking agenda — one that came at the direct expense of both staff and readers — was in place long before the publisher started mucking around with AI.

When it finally did, notably publishing an article whose sole purpose was to list the “Star Wars” movies in order and yet got the order wrong — it caused an uproar.

Similarly, CNET has been hurting for years. Once a powerhouse of tech media, it was acquired by CBS for $1.8 billion in 2008, then was sold to a little-known private equity company based in South Carolina called Red Ventures. The Verge describes its business model as “straightforward and explicit: it publishes content designed to rank highly in Google search for ‘high-intent’ queries and then monetizes that traffic with lucrative affiliate links.” AI was used, it is believed, to streamline and maximize that process.

Both CNET and G/O are now owned by private equity firms, and much has been written about what a disaster it’s been for journalism to hand such companies the keys — one academic paper even quantified the damage. Which has been considerable.

Advertisement

As a journalist, all of this depresses me — I worked for Gizmodo for a bit, and was once an avid reader of Gawker, Deadspin and the AV Club, all of which have been gutted. BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer and was widely loved. Sports Illustrated was a legend.

And look, things change. Cultural institutions evolve, fade, die out. Not every magazine needs to exist forever. But it is a bummer when an otherwise popular, viable, even beloved cultural institution is killed off — while there’s a team that’s working overtime at the helm that wants to keep the lights on — because a Wall Street firm or an adventuring licensing company can increase earnings at the margins by cutting out its heart.

The tragedy of AI is not that it stands to replace good journalists but that it takes every gross, callous move made by management to degrade the production of content — and promises to accelerate it.

If journalists are outraged at the rise of AI and its use in editorial operations and newsrooms, they should be outraged not because it’s a sign that they’re about to be replaced but because management has such little regard for the work being done by journalists that it’s willing to prioritize the automatic production of slop.

AI does not emerge from a media company’s innovation lab but from a handshake deal with a shady third-party company. It’s a hail Mary move that aspires to take the place of formulating a real plan to turn a business around — a future-shaped Get Out of Jail Free card for business leaders confronting bad times. And it’s almost certain to fail to deliver.

Advertisement

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Business

Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

Published

on

Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

Michael Suswal’s first eye-opening encounter with the vibrancy of San Francisco came in 2017.

That’s when he and his fellow co-founders of Standard AI, an artificial intelligence startup funded by the incubator Y Combinator, moved from New York to San Francisco for the summer.

“Initially we planned on going back to New York,” says Suswal, 44. “But after living in the Bay Area for two or three months, between us we had way more network contacts than we had had in our combined 50 years living in New York.”

Where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors?

— Michael Suswal, Generation Lab

Advertisement

When COVID hit, Suswal told me, he moved to Seattle and worked from home. Last year, when he and a partner opted to co-found a new company, they pondered the best place to start.

“We thought, where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors? Building a company is hard. It takes everything you’ve got, and even then there’s an 80% chance of failure. So why would you stack the deck against yourself? It was a no-brainer to come back here.”

Generation Lab, which Suswal co-founded with longevity expert Alina Su and UC Berkeley bioengineering professor Irina Conboy, aims to market a technology that can help customers identify and manage long-term medical conditions.

Suswal’s take is different from what you might have heard from the news media and red-state politicians over the last few years. They spin a narrative of a region — indeed, the entire state of California — in secular decline. Of a Silicon Valley whose best days are behind it. Of wholesale flight of money and talent to new, welcoming places such as Miami and Austin.

But there has never been much truth to that narrative generally, and it’s more dubious than ever today, when the Bay Area has emerged as a center of artificial intelligence investing.

Advertisement

There is no shortage of newsy nuggets to illustrate the “doom loop” narrative about San Francisco.

On Tuesday, for instance, Macy’s announced that it would close its gigantic store overlooking Union Square sometime in the next three years. But the closure is part of a major corporate retrenchment involving the closings of 150 stores nationwide, 30% of the total.

Nor is there anything historically new about San Francisco-bashing. The practice dates back to the Gold Rush, when the city’s powerful attraction as a jumping-off place for Forty-Niners seeking their fortunes in the nearby hills generated an equally potent counter-narrative.

Hinton R. Helper, a visitor from North Carolina who would eventually gain notoriety as a white supremacist, reported in 1855 on the city’s “rottenness and its corruption, its squalor and its misery, its crime and its shame, its gold and its dross…. Degradation, profligacy and vice confront us at every step.”

It’s a short distance from Helper’s screed to the map that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displayed during a televised debate with Gov. Gavin Newsom in November, purportedly showing deposits of human waste around San Francisco. (That didn’t help DeSantis’ presidential campaign avert an early demise, any more than Helper’s critique stemmed the flow of fortune-seekers into California.)

Advertisement

It’s true that the frenzy in artificial intelligence investing has brought a jolt of capital to the entrepreneurial economy of the Bay Area, but that’s merely the latest iteration of a story that dates back to the emergence of Silicon Valley in the late 1960s — or even to the founding of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto in 1939.

The region has undergone a long sequence of technology booms and busts over the decades, but each bust has set the stage for the next boom. In the 1980s, the valley’s chipmakers lost their dominance in semiconductor memory to Japanese competitors.

But within a few years, as UC Berkeley economist and political scientist AnnaLee Saxenian observed in her definitive study of the region, “Regional Advantage,” in 1994, new semiconductor and computer startups such as Sun Microsystems had emerged and Silicon Valley had “regained its former vitality.” By 1990, Silicon Valley was home to “one-third of the 100 largest technology companies created in the United States since 1965,” Saxenian wrote.

The key to its enduring stature atop the innovation economy has been the Bay Area’s infrastructure of institutions (Stanford and UC Berkeley) and legal, technical and financial professionals, and its population of technology workers — all having created “dense social networks and open labor markets.”

By contrast, the Silicon wannabes tend to put all their eggs in one basket, and when that basket’s contents spill out, there’s little to fill it up again.

Advertisement

Miami is a telling example. Its mayor, Francis X. Suarez, tried to establish the city as the center of cryptocurrency financing and innovation. The FTX crypto exchange bought naming rights to the arena where the NBA’s Miami Heat play. International conferences for bitcoin and crypto adherents filled the conference center in 2022.

Miami associated itself with the first “city coin,” a crypto token that Suarez claimed would help boost the municipal budget.

The effort hasn’t panned out. FTX collapsed as its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, was indicted and subsequently convicted of fraud; the Heat’s arena now carries the name of Kaseya, a Miami software firm.

Attendance at crypto conferences has dwindled. MiamiCoin, which was valued at 5 cents when it came on the market in August 2021, now trades for about 16-thousandths of a cent, if anyone cares — there doesn’t seem to have been a trade in eight months. The city is searching for relevance in the modern technology landscape.

The same sources that talked up the flight of entrepreneurs from the Bay Area to Miami, Austin and other Silicon wannabes are now running articles about startup founders moving back; often the return is accompanied by complaints about the lack of a true innovation culture in their new homes, as well as traffic congestion and housing prices soaring out of reach — much the same as one would find in any large city.

Advertisement

As my colleague Hannah Wiley reported recently, San Francisco’s adherents are trying to seize the narrative reins by reminding people that the city and region offer unique advantages to entrepreneurs, especially in technology-related fields.

One is Angela Hoover, 25, who launched her consumer-oriented AI search firm, Andi, in Miami with backing from Y Combinator. At first, Miami seemed inviting because it seemed to be host to a healthy startup community.

Attending AI events in San Francisco, however, made it “abundantly clear that the AI community was in San Francisco. It almost feels like you have a front-row seat to a play, and at the same time you’re in the play,” Hoover said.

“Despite what all the doom-and-gloom critics say, [the Bay Area] is still a hotbed of innovation,” Ali Diab, chief executive of Collective Health, told me. That’s what prompted the firm, which manages employer health plans, to return its headquarters to downtown San Francisco after allowing its workforce to disperse to a work-from-home system during the pandemic.

“Obviously, you have the AI revolution being driven from here,” Diab says, “but you also have powerhouse enterprise software companies like Salesforce and Slack.”

Advertisement

Collective Health also discovered that the cost of office space in San Francisco was lower than elsewhere in the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley proper. About 120 of Collective Health’s 783 employees work in San Francisco, with the others distributed among offices in Chicago, Texas and Utah, or working remotely.

Diab was an early critic of the “doom loop” argument against San Francisco, observing in a mid-October op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that “as a Bay Area native, I’ve had to listen to people predict the demise of my city for my entire life.” In truth, he wrote, “the oft-cited challenges San Francisco faces are no different from those experienced by any other major city in the United States.”

Housing is “prohibitively expensive in almost every major American city,” he added. “New York, Chicago and Los Angeles haven’t solved their homelessness problems and neither have many other large cities.”

The story of a Bay Area exodus always was overstated. The image of Texas’ attraction for entrepreneurs has never moved much beyond three major tech companies that moved their headquarters there from California — Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Houston and Oracle and Tesla in Austin.

And the significance of these moves may be more imagined than real. In 2020, when Oracle announced its move to Austin from Redwood City, south of San Francisco, it said it was building a campus for 10,000 employees; the company has 164,000 workers worldwide.

Advertisement

When Elon Musk sought a location for Tesla’s “global engineering headquarters,” the seat of the company’s innovative brainpower, he found it in Hewlett Packard’s former corporate headquarters — not in Austin, but Palo Alto. He announced his decision to move into that space in February 2023 at a joint event with Gov. Newsom.

Other states have never come close to California in the volume of their venture investments. In 2022, according to the National Venture Capital Assn., California firms raised $78.3 billion in venture funding, more than 40% higher than second-ranked New York. Florida ranked fifth with only $2.6 billion, followed by Texas with $2.4 billion (and Texas’ total fell by about half from the previous year).

San Francisco companies attracted nearly $31 billion in venture funding in 2022, according to CBRE. The Bay Area all told attracted $61 billion, accounting for 35% of all venture funding in the U.S.

Venture investing fell appreciably in 2023, and venture-backed companies experienced a spike in “down rounds” — in which their valuations are lower than they were in the previous round of venture infusions — starting in late 2022. But those trends appeared across the entire venture funding universe, and were more likely related to the run-up in interest rates and fears of a recession than to any California-centric phenomena.

In any case, AI was a distinct bright spot, accounting for about 1 in 5 of all venture deals in 2023 and one-third of all venture dollars invested, according to the accounting firm EisnerAmper.

Advertisement

No one doubts that San Francisco and the Bay Area present challenges. Suswal says he was concerned that recruiting staffers to come to the area would be difficult. When he himself was considering moving back to San Francisco from Seattle last October, he “bought into a lot of the negative aspects of the city that were being published at the time,” he says. “But the city is in better shape than it gets credit for. … All the best people come here, because it’s well worth it.”

Continue Reading

Business

Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

Published

on

Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. has told its employees that it could cut as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California.

The affected employees are part of the company’s space sector and work at facilities in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Azusa. The company said it is working to match those employees with other, existing jobs within the company.

Although Northrop Grumman did not specify a reason for the cuts, the U.S. Space Force recently canceled a multibillion-dollar program to develop a classified military communications satellite with the company after cost overruns, a schedule delay and development difficulties, according to Bloomberg.

Recently, space has been a difficult place to do business. Earlier this month, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 530 employees, or 8% of its workforce, in anticipation of massive federal budget cuts.

Advertisement

Northrop Grumman said it has notified the state’s Employment Development Department and filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice about the job cuts, as required by law.

“This is ongoing, and a higher number of employees will receive WARN notices than may ultimately be impacted,” the company said in a statement.

Although Northrop Grumman is based in Falls Church, Va., California is a major hub for the company. The defense contractor’s historic 110-acre Space Park facility in Redondo Beach was built at the height of the Cold War and is the birthplace of the intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as the rocket engines that lowered the first crew onto the moon and, more recently, the building of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The company also has a major aircraft facility in Palmdale, where it is building the new B-21 stealth bomber, the center fuselage for the F-35 fighter jet, the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone and the MQ-4C Triton drone.

Northrop Grumman also has facilities in San Diego, Sunnyvale, Northridge, Woodland Hills and Ventura County. In all, the company employs about 30,000 people across the state.

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Business

Video shows burglar vandalizing East Hollywood restaurant, causing $80,000 in damage

Published

on

Video shows burglar vandalizing East Hollywood restaurant, causing $80,000 in damage

It was a typical Sunday at El Zarape.

Families enjoyed Mexican food and good vibes at the East Hollywood restaurant inside a strip mall on Melrose Avenue as CicLAvia shut the street down to traffic.

But the next morning, when the first cook of the day showed up Monday at the restaurant, an entirely different scene awaited. She called the owner, Beto Mendez, right away.

At first, Mendez thought it might be some graffiti on the outside of the restaurant. He was wrong.

El Zarape on Melrose remains closed after burglar vandalized the restaurant.

Advertisement

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“The minute I got there I was in shock,” Mendez told The Times in an interview. “I saw the place completely destroyed.”

Mendez said there was $80,000 worth of damage inside.

Chairs were flipped over and tables were askew. One bar had been bashed in with a hammer while all the TVs were spray-painted with graffiti. Spray paint covered one of the bar’s surveillance cameras and seemingly all of the restaurant’s walls. A safe with $20,000 was taken.

Advertisement

The incident was first reported by L.A. Taco.

Surveillance video shows a man in a light-colored hoodie and dark pants and Nikes shaking a can of spray paint inside the bar before any damage was done. The man then sprays one of the surveillance cameras with paint, video shows. While Mendez could not see any other people in the videos, he assumed that there was more than one vandal, based on the amount of damage, which included “C14” tagged on the walls.

Alberto Mendez is the owner of El Zarape on Melrose.

Alberto Mendez, the owner of El Zarape on Melrose, stands in his restaurant which was recently damaged when burglars broke in and ransacked the place.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Police told Mendez that the vandalism was related to the C-14 gang, also known as Clanton, he said. The Los Angeles Police Department did not immediately provide comment on the situation.

Advertisement

C-14 is a gang that has existed in Los Angeles for about a century, originating on Clanton Street, which was later renamed 14th Place, according to a website that documents street gangs.

The gang is active in the neighborhood, with tags up and down Melrose.

The group even tagged a local house of worship, Trinity Episcopal Church, scrawling “C14” on its marquee in spray paint.

“This area is like an epicenter for a couple gangs,” said a man who works near El Zarape, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns. “MS-13 and C-14 as well as some other little local cliques. There’s a lot of tagging all around the neighborhood.”

“If someone tagged the inside of the restaurant, it’s pretty serious,” he said.

Advertisement

For Mendez, the destruction of his restaurant could not come at a worse time. Just two weeks ago, his ex-wife died. Mendez shared custody of their two teen daughters with her and now has full custody of them.

“They have that pressure and that stress of losing their mom already and I haven’t really told them nothing about the restaurant right now,” he said. “I would rather keep it to myself and handle it.”

Mendez is trying to raise money to reopen the restaurant and fix the damage via GoFundMe.

While Mendez said that the restaurant has had relatively few problems in the seven years it has been open, there was an incident after the Super Bowl on Feb. 11, according to Mendez and the other person who worked at a nearby business.

That day, the two men said, after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas, a man fired a gun into the air near El Zarape, then barricaded himself inside and police SWAT teams had to respond to arrest him.

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Trending