Collapse or Reborn? The Media Industry in the Age of AI (Part 3)

Emerging technologies, powered by big data, algorithms, and AI, are increasingly taking over human editors and reshaping the media industry in a way unseen before. In this article, we tell stories hap

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Writer: Feng Shangyue

Editor: Yang Xuan, Zhao Xiaochun

Editor’s note:

We are witnessing the revolution of the media world.

Machine-based content distribution is gradually taking over the manual work of editors while the emerging “we media” is upending the ways in which content is made.

Such tremendous changes happened in as short as three years.

People may grow nostalgic sometimes, but more often, they realize that they must move on in order to survive in the new world. This holds true for editors, web portals and content creators alike. This article is dedicated to them all.

This is the Part 3 of a 5-Part Series. 

Link to Part 1, Part 2Part 4, Part 5.


Original Content VS Content mills

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Indeed, content production landscape is being quickly reshaped, with a slew of individual and small-scale institutional producers emerging one after another.

“Changes happen when you become a has-been in the eyes of the younger generation,” concluded Pan Luan, a partner of social networking app “Zuiyou (最右)”. The younger generation is accustomed to the style and headlines of we media since 2013.

News from traditional media, though with modified headlines, is still dwarfed by carefully-articulated content on “we media”.

No mechanism is perfect. Thus, a number of ”content mills” — companies that create official social media accounts to increase sheer volume of traffic with plagiarized, inferior or fake news —emerged by taking advantage of system loopholes.

An article entitled “The Black Market of Content Mills” exposed how fake accounts create content: “the ‘content mills’ first copy some content (300-500 Chinese characters) from BBS, Weibo (microblog), WeChat or portals, then tweak it a bit, add three pictures, name a headline, and boom.” There goes a post.

The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes, and 20 articles can be “created” each day.

Mr. Shen, who worked at the OMG of Tencent, once heard something about a content mill” based in a provincial capital in central China.

They rented one entire floor of a building to forge official accounts, claiming to have created 100 “official accounts”, with a monthly revenue of 6 million yuan (around $922,620). And they knew how to play the surveillance system to avoid possible punishment.

It’s no denial that these “content mills”, in spite of their inferior content, drive a huge amount of traffic to websites with most popular content and sensational headlines.

In a way, they manage to make a tacit truce with webs under a traffic-based assessment system. Some portal channels even bring these “content mills” together and form an online group, where the former can “assign tasks” and the latter can “bid for them”.

Still, online media, from Toutiao to many portals, know well the importance of supporting quality content creators and allocate funds, some even up to over 1 billion yuan (around $153.7 million), to subsidize original content creation.

Even so, as the saying goes, “bad money drives out good”. “Content mills” are still squeezing out creators of original and quality content.

Later, Shen turned to content production, and soon discovered that original content creators generate far less profit than “content mills”.

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“An original content creator earns 1 yuan (around $0.15) per 1,000 pageviews. You may get a monthly maximum subsidy of 5,000 yuan (around $768.8) from Tencent, which is already a good deal. However, you have to rack your brain to create 15 original articles for this no more than 5,000 yuan payment, ” said Shen

“By contrast, a content mill can generate huge traffic and earn dozens of times more money by simply posting the most popular and eye-catching content. If it were you, which one would you choose? And which one would those webs prefer in terms of traffic and data? In this sense, content mills will not be wiped out,” Shen added.

Subsidies for content creators of “we media” are based on traffic, and as a result, content mills adept at plagiarizing, posting funny clips and taking advantage of algorithmic loopholes become the biggest beneficiary.

With so many official accounts in hand, they don’t care so much if one or two get caught. As long as the remaining ones still work, they can make money.

A new order is not yet in place under this emerging content ecosystem.

As everyone knows, WeChat official account outperforms other social media in current China, with a good brand reputation and capacity to maintain followers. In addition to that, step by step, it has established a mechanism for copyright protection and infringement complaint.

Amid the information flow, ties between articles and their publishing platforms are not so close as before, and readers no longer care that much about who wrote those articles.

Resultantly, authors lack the motive to create quality articles and incline to make easy money by resorting to hot words, sensational headlines, plagiarism, etc.

As noted by the late Chinese historian Ray Huang, “mathematical management” is essential for improving efficiency during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Those hard to be mathematically managed, such as value and justice, seem somewhat superfluous and awkward here.

Investigative Journalism

Spotlight is a film that follows The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States.

The ultimate goal of media is to seek the truth and ensure public supervision.

However, as investigative journalism features tough work and high costs, paper media companies keep cutting down its proportion. This is even true in the U.S., where the risks are lower.

As per a report released by Tencent Research Institute, 62% of newspapers in the U.S. do not have full-time editors for investigative reports and 16% of daily newspapers are scaling down their journalistic team in this respect.

Things can only be worse for “we media”, which lack strong manpower and financial support and therefore are vulnerable to the risks of post-deletion since a firewall against illegal content and ads are not yet introduced.

In the past, the high costs of quality news stories were covered by full-fledged media organizations. For traditional media, a cover story can take a senior journalist one or two months to complete.

Inclusive of travel expenses, the direct costs may be over ten thousand yuan (around $1537), which would be even higher for an overseas investigative trip. In the new landscape, with ads revenue declining, media outlets are more and more reluctant to spend much on news.

Bottom line for the media

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The bottom line for traditional media is to remain true and objective.

Even in the age of portals, editors-in-chief with traditional media background still adhered to the principle of “no fake news’.

For instance, Chen Tong, former editor-in-chief at Sina.com, had a zero tolerance of typos as well as fake news and often refuted rumors on Weibo.

Tang Yan, former editor-in-chief at NetEase, told KrASIA that he used to check several hundred pieces of news each day to promptly eliminate unreliable ones.

Put aside news values and quality content production. Up till now, no technology can effectively tackle fake news.

Last year, Facebook launched an algorithm-enabled intelligent recommendation product capable of editing, recommending and ranking trending topics.

But just three days after its debut, Facebook’s Trending Topics section posted a fake piece about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, which sparked an immediate furor.

Facebook explained that the fake story was qualified for a trending story at the time, according to their review guideline. But just as John Herrman at The New York Times noted, this high-profile blunder of Facebook exposed one of many algorithm loopholes—that they cannot promptly tell fake news from real ones, which makes it possible for them to go viral in a short time.

Difficult time for traditional media

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At the same time, upstream content producers, i.e., traditional media companies, are experiencing a full-scale crisis triggered by declining ad revenue.

Take newspapers as an example. In the first half of 2016, ad revenue dropped by 41.4% and ad resources fell by 40% year on year. A string of newspapers (such as Beijing Times, Life News, Shanghai Business and Morning Express), according to statistics of Tencent Research Institute, were successively closed down in 2016.

Chen Lei, former director of Southern People Weekly (eastern China division), personally witnessed a sharp fall of ad revenue from “last year’s 30 million yuan (around $4.6 million) to this year’s 10 million yuan (around $1.5 million)” between 2013 and 2015.

The dwindling ad revenue makes it hard for media companies to offer satisfactory salaries to employees. Even a moderately well-known journalist can make way more money by contributing articles to “we media” or Internet companies.

The journalism of a traditional media takes a lot of time, costs, and labor, but it—being a little bit slow in reaction—cannot harvest much in this new era and is struggling against flagging traditional distribution channels, almost non-existent copyright protection, plagiarized content on new platforms and traffic-chasing advertisers.

The same source worked at OMG of Tencent believes, the fall of traditional media challenges portals intending to follow in the steps of Toutiao. These portals were used to teaming up with quality media organizations. Now, they have to deal with a diversity of new content producers of mixed qualities, which is a brand-new experience for them.