X, Layoffs and AI: 3 Big Media Trends of 2023
Coming off a year of record inflation, massive layoffs, and struggling ad businesses, media companies began 2023 with less-than-clear predictions for what lay ahead. “So far, a lot of conversations I’ve had with CROs and CEOs on the media side have been really focused on not being able to expect what’s coming in a week’s time, let alone a full year,” Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber said in a January 2023 podcast.
As the year rolled on, our team was watching the media news and recapped the big stories each week. In this post, we’re taking a deeper dive into some of the year’s biggest trends that shaped how the media did business in 2023, including a nonstop news year for Twitter (now X), record-breaking layoffs, and the ways newsrooms used (and avoided) AI in their work.
Elon Musk’s Wild Year at Twitter/X
Regardless of what we all thought would happen when Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion last November, I think it’s safe to say we did not see many of these changes to the platform coming.
- Name Change: As part of his plan to create an “everything app,” Musk rebranded Twitter to X in July. The name change and replacement of the iconic blue bird logo were considered an “extremely risky” move by analysts, who worried about the change undoing decades of brand building.
- Massive Layoffs: The purchase was almost immediately followed by huge layoffs at the company – about 50% of staffers were cut in November 2022. Several additional rounds of cuts between then and February 2023 resulted in the workforce dropping from about 7,500 employees to around 2,000.
- Suspending Journalists’ Accounts: Shortly after Musk’s purchase of the company, dozens of journalists were suspended from the platform without explanation, seemingly countering Musk’s promise of making the site a safe haven for free speech. The suspensions were eventually lifted after the company received severe backlash.
- Mislabeling News Publishers: X applied “government-funded media” and “state-affiliated media” labels to the accounts of publishers including NPR and the BBC. The misleading and inaccurate label led NPR to quit X in April and it has not posted to the platform since.
- Changes to Verification Badges: Marking the end of an era, the platform ended its legacy verification badge system that identified accounts belonging to public organizations and high-profile users. Previously free, the blue check marks are now available for purchase for all X Premium members, causing some to worry that it will be difficult to tell if posts are from credible or at least well-known sources – an issue that had already caused major problems for Eli Lilly months earlier.
- Slowing Traffic to News Publisher Sites: In August, data showed that X was slowing traffic to rival sites like Substack and Facebook as well as news sites including Reuters and The New York Times. The delay was resolved soon after the data was released.
- Dropping Headlines from News Posts: Musk decided to drop headlines from post “cards” and only display the lead image associated with the link. The “esthetic” change basically deprioritized news posts by aiming to keep readers on the platform rather than clicking away to another site. Publishers including The New York Times and Washington Post adjusted social media guidelines to ensure journalists were including clear, thorough context in their posts. This is a change that will potentially be reversed soon.
In the end, the cumulative effect of the changes appears to be largely negative for the company. Ad revenue has plummeted, usage and downloads have fallen off a cliff, misinformation and hate speech have increased on the platform, and the company’s value has been cut by more than half.
What does it all mean for journalists? At the beginning of 2023, 51% of respondents to a Reuters Institute for Journalism at Oxford survey said the potential loss or weakening of Twitter would be bad for journalism, but 17% suggested it could reduce reliance on the views of an unrepresentative but vocal elite.
But despite the potential of tools like Mastadon and Threads to replace X, the media still seems to rely on the platform as the town square for breaking news, the go-to space for sports news, and more. As Casey Newton explained for The Verge, “Journalists spent more than a decade building up their presences on Twitter, and they were never going to abandon the site collectively overnight. As long as they can still drive traffic to their stories, discuss those stories in public with their peers, and grow their audiences, they have little reason to leave.”
A(nother) Bad Year for Media Layoffs
It’s a trend we always hope that we won’t need to cover in our annual roundups, but it’s the one that’s the most consistent. And 2023 was a particularly brutal year when it came to media layoffs.
As of October, there were already nearly 20,000 layoffs across the industry, according to Axios – more than six times the number of layoffs at the same point in 2022.
- January: Sqoop, which provided research tools and email news alerts for journalists, and The Medford (Oregon) Tribune shuttered. The end of the month also saw layoffs at The Washington Post, Vox, AdWeek, and Spotify. Publisher Dotdash Meredith laid off nearly 7% of its staff – nearly 275 people – in a direct response to “the broader challenges of the ad industry and of the economy as a whole.”
- February: Gawker continued its roller coaster ride and shut down for the second time in February (though there are now rumors that it could be brought back to life – again). News Corp. announced more than 1,000 job cuts. Newspaper company Lee Enterprises told some employees that they would need to take a two-week, unpaid furlough or accept a salary reduction. February also saw layoffs at Sports Illustrated and NPR.
- March: After stumbling in its use of AI-generated stories, CNET announced major layoffs impacting about 10% of its masthead. Digital news outlet The Morning Brew had a second large round of cuts. New England Public Media laid off 17 staffers. And it a bit of déjà vu, ESPN and NPR made headlines for the second month in a row. Also in March, the Texas Observer, a 68-year-old progressive publication, closed its doors.
- April: In some of the most shocking firings of the year, Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon were ousted from Fox News and CNN, respectively, following their own series of controversies.
- May: Disney, which owns ESPN, got closer to its expectation of roughly 7,000 layoffs for the year when it slashed an additional 2,500 jobs.
- June: Spotify announced cuts to about 200 jobs, or 2% of its workforce, amid ongoing struggles for the podcast industry. Layoffs at CNN en Español were considered “basically the end of the network as we know it.” Major cuts at The Los Angeles Times (74 jobs), The Athletic (20 jobs), LAist (21 jobs), and National Geographic (19 jobs) added to the bad news for June.
- July: In July, McClatchy laid off three Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonists as part of the company’s “continuing evolution.” Hearst also laid off more than 40 employees at publications including Elle, Seventeen and Men’s Health.
- August: Crypto media company CoinDesk cut roughly 40% of its award-winning editorial team, or 18 people. And for the first time in its 14-year history, The Texas Tribune announced layoffs, which affected 11 staffers. “There is no media company — commercial, nonprofit or public — that isn’t experiencing some version of this,” Texas Tribune CEO Sonal Shah said of the industry’s challenges. Futuro Media, a nonprofit news organization focused on Latino news, also made cuts in August.
- September: New York Public Radio, the parent organization of the WNYC news station, announced its plans to cut its work force by about 12% due to a “free fall in the advertising market.”
- October: The Washington Post offered voluntary buyouts to its staff as it tried to eliminate nearly 250 positions. “The urgent need to invest in our top growth priorities brought us to the difficult conclusion that we need to adjust our cost structure now,” CEO Patty Stonesifer wrote. The newspaper is still struggling to secure the needed buyouts, which could lead to layoffs.
- November: November was a particularly brutal month for the media, which saw cuts at Bloomberg Industry Group, Vice Media, Jezebel (which is now back!), Conde Nast, and Recurrent Ventures over the course of just a few weeks. At the end of the month, BBC News and Current Affairs announced it was cutting more than 120 jobs, but creating nearly 150 digital-focused roles.
- December: Spotify cut a whopping 17% of its staff – about 1,500 people – in a move to cut costs as it focuses on becoming profitable.
This by no means covers all the year’s layoffs but gives an idea of how incessant the cuts were across the industry this year.
But let’s end this section on a bit of a high note and reason for hope: investments in local news. Proposed legislation and new fundraising efforts hope to fill the gaps left by the closing of local outlets and expanding news deserts across the country. In the broadcast space, the newly-formed Coalition for Local News aims to work with lawmakers to protect the future of local news and modernize existing regulations to level the playing field.
This is a trend our team will continue to watch and we’ll share the latest in our weekly media news recaps.
AI in the Newsroom
At the end of 2022, Subtext cofounder David Cohn predicted AI’s role in journalism in 2023, saying, “some (not all) journalists will navigate their careers as those who can leverage this technology to improve the news ecosystem.”
Media companies spent the year after the introduction of ChatGPT figuring out how to utilize (and how not to utilize) the rapidly evolving technology in their newsrooms. They navigated concerns about AI taking journalists’ jobs, producing inaccurate information, and the copyright implications of the tech using newsrooms’ own content to train itself.
The age of AI has begun, at least according to Bill Gates. Artificial intelligence “will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it,” he says.
Among the year’s big headlines:
- The Fails: After a damaging report from Futurism highlighting inaccurate and undisclosed AI-generated articles, CNET halted its new practice of using the technology to write stories. The first AI-generated story from Men’s Journal didn’t fare any better. The Columbus Dispatch paused its AI tool for writing sports content after criticism of its football recap went viral in all the wrong ways. In recent weeks, Sports Illustrated was called out, also by Futurism, for publishing AI-generated articles under fake author names. The incident has lead to several executive exits, including that of Sports Illustrated’s CEO. Finally, in the last few days, financial news site Investing.com was in the spotlight for its AI-generated stories that are a little too similar to stories published earlier by its competitors.
- Setting Guidelines: Over the course of the year, many media companies released newly created guidelines and rules around how they would use (or not use) AI. Most focused on ensuring transparency and only using the tech to help journalists with tasks like conducting research and parsing through large amounts of data, noting that it wouldn’t be used to write actual articles. Check out this list of newsrooms’ AI guidelines.
- Finding Uses for AI: BuzzFeed started using AI to write its popular quizzes as well as other content for the site. Time also started implementing AI in its new archive quizzes. Other publishers used it to boost SEO as valuable search referral traffic was threatened by the new technology. News aggregation app Artifact partnered with OpenAI to develop a tool that rewrites headlines that are flagged as clickbait. In one of the first deals between a news company and an AI firm, the AP announced it was licensing some of its archive to OpenAI to train its AI algorithms. Finally, Google is testing a news article-generating tool, which it’s demonstrated for executives at The New York Times, The Washington Post and News Corp.
- Jobs Lost to AI: In June, German publisher Bild announced it was cutting 200 jobs and would fill some of the roles with AI. Just this week, Axel Springer announced that it will be downsizing its Upday news brand and will relaunch it as an AI-driven product, a move that will lead to layoffs.
- Publishing: In the publishing world, ChatGPT was used to author or co-author hundreds of e-books sold on Amazon’s Kindle store.
- Images: Image copyright issues were a major concern for stock photo companies like Getty, which sued Stability AI in January, alleging the tech company “unlawfully copied and processed millions of images protected by copyright” to train its software.
What lies ahead for AI in the newsroom? A survey by PR and marketing firm Bospar found that 53% of U.S. readers believe AI will eventually fully control the news media, including what is reported and the questions asked of sources. New guidelines surrounding transparency and disclosure are working to counter these fears.
Newsrooms seem to be (at least somewhat) warming to the idea of AI in the newsroom. By September, more than 75% of newsrooms said they use it in at least one of these key areas: news gathering, production and distribution. “One day, this technology will be a legitimate reporting tool that will help a reporter get the easy stuff done, so the reporter can … call sources and dig in and do the stuff that a computer can’t do. We’re just not there yet,” said David Ewalt, editor-in-chief of tech site Gizmodo.
2023 was a challenging year for the media in more ways than one. The explosion of AI and its rapid evolution forced newsrooms to consider the most ethical and effective ways to use the technology in their work – and their methods didn’t always work. The fear of losing jobs to AI was only compounded by an already awful year in terms of layoffs.
But good or bad, journalists always had something to write about thanks to Elon Musk’s rapid and wide-ranging changes to X. As we enter a year that will be dominated by the presidential election, we’ll be watching how developing technology and social media are used to combat misinformation and keep the public informed.
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Rocky Parker is the Manager of Audience and Journalist Engagement at Cision PR Newswire. She's been with the company since 2010 and has worked with journalists and bloggers as well as PR and comms professionals. Outside of work, she can be found trying a new recipe, binging a new show, or cuddling with her pitbull, Hudson.