ChatGPT Search? What It Would Mean for News

Credit: DALL-E

Up until now, chatbots like ChatGPT have been able to do a lot of remarkable things, but one thing most of them are utterly garbage at is returning accurate and useful information about what’s happening in the world right now — you know, giving you the news.

That might be about to change.

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Initial rumors last week suggested OpenAI will release some kind of search product on Monday. But CEO Sam Altman poured cold water over reports from Reuters and Bloomberg, announcing on X that the company won’t be releasing a “search engine,” although the company does have an announcement event scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.

It’s worth noting that Altman did some epic hair-splitting on the Lex Fridman podcast recently when asked about taking on Google, saying he thought building a better search engine was “boring,” but that using AI to better connect people with information they want is a game he’s interested in playing.

Here’s exactly what Altman said on that podcast:

“I don’t think it’s that interesting to say, ‘How do we go do a better job of giving you 10 ranked webpages to look at than what Google does?’ Maybe it’s really interesting to go say, ‘How do we help you get the answer or the information you need?’ How do we help create that in some cases, synthesize that in others, or point you to it in yet others?”

In any case, whether Altman is being truthful or misleading in his “nothing to see here” tweet, it’s pretty clear that the company is interested in connecting people with information in novel ways, and that necessarily includes news. That would be enough to go on, even if OpenAI wasn’t inking licensing deals with publishers — the AP, Axel Springer, the Financial Times, and more — all over the place. 

So ChatGPT Search (or whatever they call it) is coming, even if they don’t call it “search,” and even if it doesn’t arrive today. So how will it deal with news?

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The Search for Generative News

Certainly, there’s no point to applying generative AI to search if you can’t provide an experience that enhances what users can already get through Google. I say enhances, not replaces, because the value of ChatGPT Search isn’t to crawl the web in some new way, but to take search results and then interpret them with AI to give you something that might, in some use cases, be more useful than a page of links. ChatGPT itself has already shown the utility of just having “the answer” — does the same idea make sense for news stories?

If you think about how people currently use Google to find news, you can start to see how AI might enhance the experience. Today, when you Google, say, “what’s the latest news in the Trump hush money trial?” you’ll get a page with many links to recent news stories from mostly mainstream sources, several ways to get even more links via Google News or YouTube, and a bunch of related questions or search terms for following up.

The key term is “following up.” It’s up to you, the reader, to skim all the headlines you see, decide which story best matches what you were looking for, and then go back to your search results if it didn’t do the job or if you want to go deeper. Personally, I often make liberal use of Command/Control-clicking to fire up browser tabs with two or three versions of the same story to ensure I have the full picture.

A generative search for news would do that skimming, interpreting, and processing for me, returning a summary of the key facts that are common across stories on the same event, along with the main takeaways, saving me from all that clicking around. Indeed, this is basically how Microsoft Copilot and Perplexity work when you ask them about current news. What’s causing a lot of consternation in the media industry is, even if the tool gives prominent links to sources, the generative summary obviates the need to click through to them.

The thing is, that’s only half true. If all I’m looking for is a summary of a news event so I can go about my day, then sure, I won’t do any clicking. But radio summaries and news digests have been doing the same thing for literally decades, and that hasn’t destroyed in-depth coverage or the desire in people to want to go deeper on topics they’re interested in.

That’s because there’s an audience divergence that often isn’t talked about outside of media circles. For any area of coverage, there are casual readers and in-depth readers — what in some contexts you might call “enthusiasts.” For casual readers, generative summaries are probably all you’re looking for, and yes, it’s still a big issue if all of those people never click through. But enthusiasts are the ones who want to drill down. What does generative search offer them?

What ‘Going Deeper’ Means for AI News

If you think about a news event, before you go deeper, you need to start with the basics — the who, what, where, when, why of the thing. Generative summaries, assuming they’re accurate and unbiased (a big if for AI chatbots, I know) would be really helpful at level-setting the audience, giving readers a solid foundation on a specific story as well as a selection of links to go deeper, prioritized by which ones it relied on the most to generate the summary.

The thing is, at least as far as ChatGPT is concerned, it looks like those sources are going to necessarily be limited to — or at least strongly favor — the publications OpenAI has inked licensing deals with. That’s a very narrow selection of the news media right now, which would drastically limit the usefulness of its news product.

My guess: ChatGPT Search won’t wholly ignore publishers that OpenAI doesn’t have deals with. Publisher partners will get prominent linking, more detailed summaries in “cards” or whatever the user experience is, and — of course — money. If you don’t, you’re basically relegated to an “other sources” set of links with just headlines, with no generative tech applied to your story. Since that’s essentially what Google does, it would make suing over this specific usage difficult (there might still be an opt-out).

That’s just a theory, but one thing is certain: In a world where OpenAI applies generative AI to browsing the web, and the company’s influence continues to grow, publishers will be forced to make deals. That will put even more pressure on news outlets to differentiate and be the best source not just for facts, but for “going deeper,” since casual readers will continue to be divorced from original sources and just get basic information from the AI intermediary.

Of course it all depends on OpenAI creating something that brings value to all news consumers, not just casual ones. The utility of ChatGPT for News might begin with summaries, but it ends with how well it connects curious people with the sources — not just the information — that satisfies them.

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