Opinion: Learning to love AI

By Paul Conley

An AI-generated image; Conley used the prompt, “Create a picture that shows AI only wants to be loved.”

I’ve had some strange and frustrating conversations in the past few weeks with people in B2B journalism.  Those conversations are, perhaps unsurprisingly, about artificial intelligence. Much of the world seems to be involved in difficult conversations about artificial intelligence. Why should B2B journalism be any different?

But what I have found particularly troubling is how much these conversations remind me of conversations I had with B2B journalists nearly 20 years ago when Web journalism was still new.

Back then, it was common for journalists to balk at the very idea of Web journalism. Blogging generated extraordinary levels of vitriol among “professional” writers. Folks like me who viewed the emerging practices of the Web (linking, real-time reporting, blogging) as positive developments were dismissed as enemies of “real” journalism. I have a vivid memory of sitting down to lunch with a group of old-timers at an industry conference only to have them stand up and leave rather than eat with me. 

My recent conversations with B2B journalists about artificial intelligence are just like that. There’s an anger … an unwillingness to engage … a sort of head-in-the-sand refusal to see that the world is changing.

Way back in October of 2005, I wrote a blog post about journalists who hated blogs, noting that:

These folks tend to think only in stereotypes and to demonstrate shockingly low levels of curiosity. They don’t read blogs. They often don’t think anyone should read blogs. And they like to defend their ignorance with the sort of flawed logic that can give you a headache: “I practice reporting — I do research, conduct interviews and collect facts. Bloggers don’t do these things. I know this even though I have never researched, conducted interviews or collected facts about blogging.”

Now, all these years later, I could write the same thing about B2B journalists who hate artificial intelligence. I keep running into angry people who complain that artificial intelligence is no substitute for “real” journalism.

But as Gina Chua, executive editor of Semafor, said, complaining that AI systems are “bad at journalism is like being angry at Excel because it doesn’t draw pictures well.”

AI systems are, however, remarkably good at assisting journalists. AI systems can sort data, write synopses, edit copy, create or clean images, pull social-media posts out of long-form articles, transcribe interviews, pull key information from SEC filings, remove background noise from videos, and much, much more.

And all those angry B2B journalists I keep hearing from would know this if they actually tried researching, conducting interviews and collecting facts about artificial intelligence.

The other side of the B2B content coin

On the other hand, I’ve also had some lovely and encouraging conversations about artificial intelligence in recent weeks. Those conversations have been with B2B content marketers, not B2B journalists.

Because here’s the thing: content marketers are excited about artificial intelligence. Thousands of them are already using it for at least part of their jobs. They’re not worried that the use of artificial intelligence will be bad for their industry; they’re worried that not using artificial intelligence will be bad for their careers.

And they’re right.

Content marketers decided early on that the challenge wasn’t in finding out what AI could do. Artificial intelligence tools could do all sorts of things to make a content marketer more effective. The challenge was in keeping track of the dozens of AI tools that seem to emerge every month.

To meet that challenge, content marketers did what journalists are supposed to do: they started researching, conducting interviews and collecting facts about AI systems.

Then they took what they learned and talked about it with their peers — recommending tools, sharing best practices, offering tips on creating prompts for chatbots, etc.

(Most of those conversations take place on Slack channels that are open to anyone who wants to participate. If you’re interested in joining one, I recommend starting with the Marketing AI Institute’s Slack community.)

Learning from a teacher

If you’ve been involved in any of those online conversations about AI, then you know the name Ethan Mollick. He’s the professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who turned all his classes into AI classes, requiring students to use AI tools in numerous ways.

Mollick teaches business (specifically innovation and entrepreneurship), not journalism. But his policy on the use of AI by students offers the single best blueprint I’ve seen yet for how journalists should engage with AI.

In this post from his newsletter, Mollick republished his AI Policy for students and discussed how things have gone so far in his classes. It’s a remarkably interesting piece and one that everyone — particularly journalists — should read.

Mollick ends by saying “I think focusing on how people use AI in class rather than whether they use it will result in better learning outcomes, happier students, and graduates who are better prepared for a world where AI is likely to be ubiquitous.”

Anyone hungry?

No one has refused to eat lunch with me (yet) over my belief that B2B journalists should embrace artificial intelligence.

But if what’s past is prologue, someone will.

So before I wind up sitting alone again at a table for eight, let me paraphrase the closing sentence of Mollick’s newsletter. Focusing on how you use AI rather than whether you use it will leave you a better B2B journalist in a world where AI is likely to be ubiquitous.

Because here’s the truth: If you’re going to continue to work in B2B journalism, you will learn to use AI or you will lose your job to someone else who does.

So do your research about AI. Interview some users. Collect some facts.

Then, let’s you and I do lunch.

Paul Conley is a media executive and content expert, and is recognized for his ability to transform operations, increase productivity, improve content quality, and mentor young talent. He has directed editorial operations for publishers, and created content-marketing operations for brands among other accomplishments. He can be reached at paulconleyconsulting@gmail.com.