Could AI Have Saved The Messenger?

Image via MidJourney

The tragicomical flameout of “unbiased” news source The Messenger was simultaneously obvious and surprising. The company, which raised $50 million in funding and hired 300 reporters, abruptly shut down yesterday, leaving a blank webpage and absolutely outraged employees.

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To anyone with minor media savvy, the whole project was a predestined failure. The vision — if it can be called that — was aggregation. Those 300 writers, by all rights talented reporters, were given the mandate to rewrite other news stories including blips about Trump, celebrities, weird dogs, and a guy who spent weeks underwater. That’s right: they were told to post through it.

Joshua Benton wrote for Nieman Lab on the launch of the site:

The thing that’s confusing about The Messenger to everyone else in the media world is that its ideas don’t make any sense. It’s in an aggressive sort of denial about the world of digital news publishing in 2023. It’s LARPing an earlier time. The Messenger thinks it will reach 100 million monthly uniques on the back of bland aggregation. (That’s only slightly smaller than The New York Times’ audience.) It thinks it can support a 550-person newsroom on programmatic advertising. The Messenger thinks the right pitch for a site funded by Republican megadonors and run by the guy who brought the world John Solomon is: “We’re the unbiased ones!”

In short, The Messenger was destined to die.

But could AI have saved it?

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The Aggregatatron

News aggregation worked for a long time. Taking other people’s stories — even if they’re just in the form of headlines à la Drudge Report — was a surefire way of gathering readers. Heck, in my early journo days I wrote 28 aggregated stories a day, 16 in the morning and 12 at night, for Gizmodo. I got fat and cynical, but I did it.

The result was lots of traffic. Sadly, due to the rise of social media, this is no longer a winning strategy unless the content is heavily optimized for SEO. Because most people just read headlines, those also must be optimized to oblivion. AI can do that.

I built a tool called Sublimewire that that does exactly what The Messenger was trying to do. You give it a press release or news story and it rewrites it in an SEO-optimized way. I tested my tool for a few months on a site I called Fractal and found that it got enough Google traction to be interesting.

In other words, AI works. We just have to use it properly.

But here’s the question: aside from the obvious SEO-focused use of this tool for marketers, does journalism want to go down this road?

With Sublimewire, The Messenger could have hired 100 journos, all focused on aggregation. Before it was shuttered, the site published 200 posts a day, with some writers doing 10 posts each (a pittance in the golden age of aggregation). With 100 aggregation-focused journos, The Messenger could easily have increased its post count to 1,000 posts a day, or even multiple times that, and those humans wouldn’t even get burned out by the writing. They’d just have to edit a lot of AI-generated content.

I am a stalwart defender of journalism. None of those 300 journalists should have been fired and I also believe that the owner of The Messenger, Jimmy Finkelstein, should not have gotten investment for the stupidest idea outside of Quibi. But here we are and that’s what happened. Many journos moved to The Messenger on the promise of a good salary and benefits. Many others torpedoed freelance careers to take a day job. All that went up in a bonfire of inanities.

Finkelstein is a moron. The bosses were morons. But if they persisted in being morons and wanted to actually make their idea work, they should have used AI. Sadly, they were all too stupid to see the future.

Ready to start using AI like a pro?


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