Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Sports Illustrated employees deserve more than shameful AI episode

They deserve so much better than to be associated with this shameful, shameless approach by SI’s publisher, Arena Group, which according to Futurism’s report deleted all of the dubious content — including the articles, which Futurism also reported were AI-generated — after being contacted by a reporter.
The empathy was for the superb actually human writers that continue to produce consistently stellar work for the diminished, now-monthly magazine — people such as Tom Verducci , Chris Mannix , Stephanie Apstein , Chris Herring , and Greg Bishop .
When the website Futurism revealed Monday that Sports Illustrated had published an assortment of articles bylined by writers who didn’t exist — with accompanying headshots that originated on a website selling images generated by Artificial Intelligence — my first reaction was empathy, followed by a wave of nostalgia.
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(SI’s owner is Authentic Brands Group, which purchased the magazine from Meredith Corporation in May 2019. It licensed publishing rights to Arena Group, which outsourced some content to third-party company AdVon. Arena Group pinned the phony writers situation on AdVon, so it also outsources blame, apparently.)
As for nostalgia, anyone who grew up in one of the decades, plural, that constituted Sports Illustrated’s heyday, who anticipated the magazine’s arrival in the mailbox each Thursday, who habitually read it from the back because of Rick Reilly’s impossibly brilliant columns, who still catches themselves thinking about past articles — some heartwarming, some heartbreaking, some both — from time to time, it’s so sad to see the life wrung out of it by parasitic owners who value Sports Illustrated’s name as a brand while disregarding why it once meant so much to so many.
Mark Mulvoy, a Dorchester native and former Globe reporter, oversaw some of the most prosperous and heady times in Sports Illustrated history. He joined the magazine in 1965 as a reporter. In 1984, he was named editor, a title he held until his retirement after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. In a telephone conversation this past week, he called the use of AI “shameful,” mentioning that several reporters who had worked for him, including Armen Keteyian and Michael Farber, shared similar sentiments in recent correspondence. “It feels like the final stake,” said Mulvoy. “Its owners have been squeezing it for everything it’s worth, that’s been obvious, but this is despicable.”
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Beyond those sentiments longing for what Sports Illustrated was and appreciating the work of the skeleton crew of superb talent that remains, one question is obvious: How could this have happened? How could lousy, AI-generated content populate its website without its talented human editors knowing?
After talking on background with multiple Sports Illustrated employees, it’s clear there were a couple of factors. One is that Sports Illustrated’s website, beneath the quality articles from its remaining magazine staff, is a content mill with little to no quality control. Freelancers paid very little churn out content on team-oriented sites, slap the Sports Illustrated name on the articles, and post them on various social media outlets to chase clicks. These sub-sites aren’t about journalism or quality, but hitting quotas. It’s a cynical play, but not an unfamiliar one.
In the case of the AI articles that were scrubbed, they were affiliate-link partnerships so deep on the site, most of Sports Illustrated’s actual editors did not know they even existed — and there was little to no oversight from those in charge of the content farms.
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The Arena Group said in a statement posted on social media that Futurism’s report wasn’t accurate. But the company was playing a disingenuous game, claiming AdVon had assured them that the posts were written by humans but that they had used a pseudonym to protect authors’ privacy.
On its LinkedIn page, in the first line in AdVon’s “about us” section, AdVon touts itself as “ML [Machine Learning]/AI solutions for E Commerce.” That sure doesn’t sound like human writers to me. As one Sports Illustrated staffer put it, “When you hire an AI company to give you content . . . ”
A quick update on The Sports Hub’s search for a co-host to pair with Fred Toucher on its morning program after Rich Shertenlieb’s departure in November: The Sports Hub and parent company Beasley Media have followed proper protocols in seeking a new host, posting the job listing online and interviewing potential candidates for one role at the station or another from inside and outside the company. It’s also been good fodder for the show itself when fill-ins have joined Toucher and third voice Jon Wallach on the show. (Channel 4′s Dan Roche, a frequent fill-in, is not a candidate for the job.) The strong belief here is that when all is said and done, Rob “Hardy” Poole, the third voice on the afternoon “Zolak and Bertrand” show, will move to mornings come the new year. He’s made the most sense all along because of his production talent and a sense of humor that would mesh well with Toucher. At this point, it would be stunning if he’s not the choice.
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Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.

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