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2024: It’s all about AI (again) and lawsuits

Will Elon Musk’s X tank in 2024 and go bankrupt? And what are the chances Musk will still own the platform he bought as Twitter and rebranded? Will generative AI come for our jobs? How powerful will it become? How wide will the schism between AI doomers and optimists grow? What if Donald Trump is re-elected to the White House? How will elections across the globe and violent conflicts play out? How will we combat false information? What impact will economic turbulence have? How do we deal with unclear legal regulations? Will we restore trust in journalism? And will we eventually make contact with aliens?

Predictions are really only bets. We may speculate cleverly and hazard informed guesses, but here at Mx3 we’d rather identify and follow the main developments in the industry.

So, what are we tracking over the next twelve months?

After a truly wild year for technology – if only we had a pound for every time 2023 was called the breakout year for generative AI – we are set for a year of even faster change, reshaping our world.

2024 will be THE election year. At least 64 countries will head to the polls, raising the spectre of an avalanche of doctored videos, deep fakes, and harmful, divisive and false information flooding the internet. But the elections also signify the impact politicians and policymaking will have on the ideological split in Silicon Valley between the pro-tech “effective accelerationists” or “e/acc”, and the “AI doomers” or “de-accelerationists” who worry about the power of big tech companies and the risks AI pose to humanity.

2024 will also be the year of the lawsuit. The New York Times lawsuit against ChatGPT owner OpenAI and Microsoft, filed at the end of 2023 in a Manhattan federal court, addresses critical questions about copyright law and AI technology like large language models (LLMs).

OpenAI faces multiple lawsuits, including legal action from US authors George RR Martin and John Grisham.

1. OpenAI splashes the cash

The New York Times lawsuit will have implications for the broader AI and tech industries. Already, some commentators have even warned AI faces an existential threat, although rumours of its demise may be rather premature. However, OpenAI and Microsoft could be ordered to pay billions of dollars in damages and to destroy GPT and other models and training sets that incorporate New York Times articles.

The lawsuit contends ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Bing Chat “learn” by analysing, without permission, “millions” of New York Times articles. These large language models then produce content nearly identical to the original that now “competes” with the newspaper as a trustworthy information source.

Media companies were never going to let generative AI bots plunder their content for long; the only question was how publishers would stop the bots from accessing their information.

OpenAI had, in fact, already started pursuing deals – most notably, with Axel Springer, announced barely two weeks before the Times filed its lawsuit. The Axel Springer agreement, reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars a year, enables ChatGPT to access its content for a one-off fee plus an annual sum for a licence and the ongoing creation of links to the original copy.

Other companies may well be tempted to agree to similar deals. (The New York Times noted in its lawsuit that it had been in talks with Microsoft and OpenAI about resolving the issue. This could include a licence.) Apple is reportedly exploring multiyear deals worth at least $50 million to train its generative AI systems with Condé Nast, NBC News, and IAC, which owns People, The Daily Beast and Better Homes and Gardens.

If the Axel Springer deal does set a precedent, it will deliver a potentially lucrative and ongoing revenue stream for media companies.

But how much will AI companies be prepared to pay for content? And where will it leave smaller media and regional players? Or B2B content providers? They are at the bottom of what could be a very long list. Collective bargaining similar to the deal between OpenAI and the American Journalism Project (AJP) may be their best option.

2. More and more AI

The world will get to grips with the potential of generative AI and how powerful and useful it can be (or dangerous) as it becomes more ubiquitous in everyday use. We’ll grapple with ethics, regulation and technical limits, but we won’t escape it.

Nicholas Diakopoulos, professor of computational journalism at Northwestern University and an expert in using generative AI in newsrooms, recently asked on X: “This is your reminder that pretty soon everyone is going to have an LLM in their pocket, potentially remediating every piece of content a user consumes. Are media organisations ready for that future?”

While generative AI has become known for getting the facts wrong and hallucinating, developers are convinced it will improve with training. Industry experts like Vinod Khosla, founder of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, believes “reasoning” will emerge in LLMs, producing far more accurate results.

Exponential growth in computational power will further increase the capability of AI machines.

3. AI transforms search (but don’t write off Google)

Large language models or LLMs threaten to end article links – the soul of news discovery. If there are no links to your content, then the entire architecture of news discovery breaks. 

Publishers will have to look at their business models. Can they create sustainable brands without accessing search content? And where will that leave Google?

Google is playing catch-up, as evidenced by the lukewarm response to Gemini, it’s “most capable” and “multi-modal” model. The long-awaited answer to ChatGPT will run directly on mobile phones. The company says its AI system can analyse information from images and audio. Gemini, which initially powered Google’s chatbot Bard, will be launched more broadly into its search engine this year.

Casey Newton, who writes the Platformer newsletter, believes you write off Google at your own peril.

“I predict that by next December, we’ll be talking much less about the capabilities of these current-generation models — and much more about the product experiences they enable.

“The reason is that by most accounts, the models are already roughly at parity. Over time, it will matter less that ChatGPT is 3 percent better at this benchmark, and Gemini Ultra is 4 percent better at that one. Instead, it’s going to come down to product and distribution. Who can build the best user experience? Who can get it in front of the most people?

“Microsoft and Google are best positioned to capture the upside there — but not well enough that we should expect them to inspire millions to defect from one suite of productivity apps to the other. (This was one lesson of the Bing relaunch this year.) Google will still face plenty of challenges in 2024, but ‘Gemini sucks’ is not going to be one of them.”

4. Subscriptions 2.0

Subscriptions may well be the bedrock of the media industry’s future. According to a Juniper Research study, the subscription economy is forecast to be worth $600 billion by 2026, made up of more than 4.2 billion subscriptions across entertainment, music, education, well-being and lifestyle content. 

The New York Times has led the charge with its digital subscription model, demonstrating it ensures predictable revenue, enhanced privacy and security, and a better user experience.

Its subscription bundle has become legendary (a word we don’t easily use) as it edges towards its goal of 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027. It now has more than 10 million subscribers, adding 210 000 net digital-only subscribers in the three months through September 2023.

Nearly 3.8 million of the 9.41 million digital-only subscribers are subscribed to at least two products, the company said.

Anil Malhotra, co-founder and chief marketing officer of mobile commerce tech company Bango, argues that super bundling is the future.

“It is a response to subscription fatigue, and addresses the overwhelming number of subscriptions consumers manage. Super bundling allows users to subscribe to various services through a single content hub with a consolidated bill, simplifying management and content discovery.”

For content providers, Malhotra says, super bundling means access to millions of potential customers.

5. Tracking, cookies and advertising revenues

The end of widespread tracking, and the challenges to generating advertising revenue, may still be a year off, but if you do not have an alternative plan, you’re probably in trouble. Some early movers are already navigating these choppy waters, as Seb Joseph writes in Digiday, updating ad tech partners and changing measurement plans.

Joseph writes marketers are “in the same place they were when Google first said it would eliminate third-party cookies back in 2020: still divided and uncertain about the best path forward”.

One thing is certain, he warns: They have 2024 to figure this out. “It’s a do-or-die scenario.”

The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey, one of the thought leaders in modern media, writes that while advertising is losing its lustre, it isn’t going away. “… it works and it will be with us for as long as capitalism persists. That aside, the digital advertising economy is changing.”

But the shift away from a generation of cookie-based ad targeting techniques, Morrissey argues, will inevitably shake up the industry.

“What’s more, reliable distribution channels like search will continue to get less reliable. Publishers will continue to rebalance their businesses away from a dependence on attracting users to web pages to show them ads. That will soon sound incredibly outdated.”

Morrissey says publishers will focus more on events, activations, and unique ad categories.

6. A compromise between Google and news publishers?

The Google headquarters in California

In a move towards fair compensation for news and magazine publishers, Google recently agreed to pay Canadian publishers 100 million Canadian dollars annually for news content displayed on its search engine. The revenue will be shared among radio, television, newspapers, and other content publishers, including independent outlets, Indigenous media and multilingual media.

This follows a similar deal foisted upon the tech companies by the Australian government.

Will other countries follow suit? In the UK, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill is expected to come into force in Autumn 2024, and there are moves across Europe to get tech companies to pay for content used on their platforms.

In the US, News Media Alliance CEO Danielle Coffey has pointed out the challenge of negotiating with tech platforms without government intervention. News Media Alliance plans to pursue additional revenue sources from companies like Google for journalism and news organisations in the coming year. 

7. Social media traffic, X and Threads

In 2024, it will be even more difficult to engage with and on Elon Musk’s X, the platform newsrooms once relied on as Twitter to boost reader numbers. X is no longer a safe environment for brands. We are at the end of an era where social media is a significant source of traffic for media companies, best illustrated by the viral brands Buzzfeed and Vice Media.

Sam Cholke, manager of distribution and audience growth at Institute for Non-profit News, says 2024 will, in many ways, be about “moving beyond social media” to build audiences. His organisation will launch new pilots, fund experiments and release new guides on marketing, distribution, earned media and other tactics to adapt to a post-social media world where “it is much more challenging to get the news to people that aren’t actively searching for it”. 

“With big elections in 2024, it’s more important than ever to find new ways to get reliable information to people that need it and a great chance to experiment with new tactics,” says Cholke.

Threads, Meta’s attempt to capitalise on the chaos over at X – was launched in July 2023. It launched across the European Union in December, a move that may help it in its battle against Musk’s platform.

Also in December, Threads tested integration with ActivityPub, the service that supports Mastodon.

“Making Threads interoperable will give people more choice over how they interact and it will help content reach more people,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Threads post. “I’m pretty optimistic about this.” 

This also means the fediverse – essentially an ensemble of social networks that can communicate with each other and what some pundits hail as the next phase of the internet – is one step closer to going mainstream.

8. The long and the short of video

TikTok is predicted to be the place to be in 2024. News organisations and politicians will seek audiences there, especially as the platform shifts towards long-form content of up to ten minutes long.

Video is still an important income source for many media companies, with agencies now (conversely) mastering the art of short-form.

TheSoul Publishing group, for example, continues to thrive with profits fuelled by huge audiences for viral videos. The company claims to be the number one digital media studio in the world in terms of online video traffic on YouTube and Facebook through iconic brands like 5-Minute Crafts and 123-Go! TheSoul has two billion subscribers and achieves around 25 billion views per month.

But, as in the rest of the industry, generative AI is changing video. In December, Channel 1 AI launched a pilot programme showcasing how AI will drive its content. From using human-style bot presenters to algorithms to research and create news content, it offers a glimpse of a future that might not yet chime with consumers but that has a bottom line that will certainly appeal to CFOs and CEOs.

9. An issue of trust

Charlie Beckett, professor in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, says he has “no expectation that the news media will cease its pointless obsession with trust surveys”.

This obsession, Beckett says, is not only a distraction but actually harmful.

“Being trustworthy might be useful. Build a relationship over time where people have expectations that you will deliver relevant, reliable and accessible journalism. That is much more useful than some kind of deferential, instinctive ‘trust’, Beckett wrote for the Nieman Lab’s predictions for 2024.

“Show them your workings, admit and correct your mistakes. Be honest about what you don’t know and listen to what your users say interests them. Try to be diverse, accurate, empathetic, and purposeful. Be constructive as well as critical. Be ethical, moral, and political without being partisan. But don’t run advertising campaigns saying how important journalism is.”

*Compiled by Piet van Niekerk, Ashley Norris and Adri Kotze.

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