Inside the News: How Colorado Newsrooms Are (or Aren’t) Using ChatGPT

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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ChatGPT and its artificial intelligence brethren are the latest technological advancements to rumble through local newsrooms.

The so-called chatbot — the GPT stands for “generative pre-trained transformer” — is a free tool that answers in a matter of seconds questions users ask it, and it can do some eye-popping things. For instance, the latest system “can figure out tax deductions and answer questions like a Shakespearan pirate,” The Associated Press reported, “but it still ‘hallucinates’ facts and makes reasoning errors.”

Colorado journalists and others have been writing about how these AI chatbots are a college student’s new “favorite helper,” how schools are “bracing for artificial intelligence,” and how “love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.” Meanwhile, Casey Fiesler, a technology ethicist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has been quoted saying people can program generative AI to easily spread disinformation. (ChatGPT, created by the OpenAi research lab, has also entered my financial portfolio; I own stock in Microsoft that has pumped billions into the tool, and I invest in ETFs that also likely benefit from AI holdings in other capacities.)

As for journalists using the chatbot and AI themselves, some newsroom leaders in Colorado see it as potentially useful. Others don’t seem to want their journalists anywhere near it when it comes to producing work.

“It seems clear to me that there could be uses for it down the road, in conjunction with a journalist who would fact check and direct,” says Larry Ryckman, founder and editor of The Colorado Sun, which has not yet developed a policy around the use of AI in the newsroom. “I think we’re being naive to think that it will never play a role in newsrooms. What I do think is that we have to find a way to use it responsibly and with integrity.”

Others have already drawn a line.

“Our ethics policy calls for our work to be original and our own,” says Kevin Dale, executive editor at Colorado Public Radio. “ChatGPT doesn’t fit that. We’ve talked at a staff meeting [about how] using it to report or produce a story is outside of that.”

Quentin Young, editor of the nonprofit digital news site Colorado Newsline, said its umbrella network States Newsroom “has issued no guidance” on AI chatbots. Nor has Colorado Newsline itself, Young said, “because we expect our journalists to be journalists.”

Management at Rocky Mountain Public Media is currently drafting policies for how journalists use AI, but currently, “we don’t use ChatGPT for any of our journalism,” says its president and CEO, Amanda Mountain.

Boulder Reporting Lab has started to explore the potential capacity of generative AI to help create “efficiencies and capacity-building in our newsroom,” says founder Stacy Feldman. “We have not used it for editorial production at all — and it’s not a reporting tool,” she said. The nonprofit newsroom has dabbled with using it to create headlines and summarize curated content, though. “But even that requires a layer [of] human fact-checking,” she said. Feldman says she is personally excited about the prospects of the new technology “given how many inefficiencies exist in news production.”

Nicole Meir, a spokesperson for The Associated Press, says the influential nonprofit wire service “continues to explore the use of AI and automation to improve efficiency and effectiveness.”

The AP does uses artificial intelligence and automation “when it can free up our journalists to do more meaningful work,” Meir said, adding: “We use AI to produce audio-to-text transcriptions, create shot lists in predictable environments, tag content for search, and write corporate earnings reports and some sports preview and recap stories. We also use automation for the distribution of financial markets and sports data.”

Already in 2014 the AP was automatically generating corporate earnings stories and has automated game previews and some recaps of certain sports. “AP includes a disclaimer on any story created using automation technology,” Meir said.

When ChatGPT first hit the media scene in Colorado, some journalists put it to use to explain how this new and startling technology works.

Vince Bzdek, editor of The Colorado Springs Gazette, used ChatGPT to help write a newspaper column. Alayna Alvarez at Axios Denver tested ChatGPT’s Colorado knowledge. Kristen Mohammadi at The Aspen Times asked it questions about Aspen and then judged its results.

Reporter Ernest Luning at Colorado Politics, however, took ChatGPT to an entirely different level. He used it to create a fictitious “artificial intelligence-fueled candidate” named Taylor Brown to run in the crowded Denver mayor’s race. Through a “series of chat sessions,” the fake candidate “acquired a distinctive voice and appeared to grow more emboldened, soon replacing an initially bland manifesto with bold policy solutions that wouldn’t sound out of place if they were released by most of the leading human mayoral hopefuls,” Luning wrote.

Some have wondered about how such a tool could impact the profession more broadly. The News Literacy Project recently produced a podcast titled “Will chatbots change how journalism is practiced?” On the show, Madhumita Murgia, who serves as the artificial intelligence editor at the Financial Times, said she has seen how it can be a “really great assistive tool, something like an intern” that helps to “draw out information from complex or long documents” and summarize themes and ideas, which can offer a jumping off point to “do original reporting that we expect of journalists.”

In Colorado, Wet Mountain Tribune Publisher Jordan Hedberg has said he expected Colorado’s chain-owned newspapers to “employ this more to crank out more content as that is their business model.”

On the other hand, John Rodriguez, the former publisher of PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo, said he believes what OpenAI is doing with its chatbot “will kill legacy media but save local media and it will be a good thing.” He argued in a social media essay that “the backbone of local papers could be either a private or public bot that has the entirety of archives, government meetings, laws, etc that allows for higher level requests and production.”

Even before ChatGPT came on the scene, The Denver Post had experimented with robots helping produce sports coverage; 9NEWS has used a company that creates “automated local stories” to produce items about Denver real estate (and cupcakes). Together, those two outlets make up perhaps the largest online audiences in the state. (It was already in 2014 when The Los Angeles Times broke the news of an earthquake with help from an algorithm called Quakebot.)

Earlier this year, Gina Chua, the executive editor of the global news organization Semafor, published some ideas about how newsrooms might effectively use ChatGPT.

Some might worry the tool and its AI kin could be a threat to journalism jobs, but Chua found there are “useful, here-and-now real world applications that could materially improve how journalism is practiced and created” — and then immediately added “the statement above might no longer be true.”

After playing around with a chatbot called Claude, created by Anthropic, Chua wrote:

“I’m not suggesting that Claude should be unleashed on stories unsupervised; but if [it] could do a first edit on most of the copy in a newsroom — especially those where the staff are writing in a language which isn’t their mother tongue — it could offer material improvements in quality and efficiency.”

Some local journalists have copped to using it for a tech assist.

Andrew Kenney, a reporter for Colorado Public Radio, said he has used ChatGPT to “code an Excel macro to do something way beyond my capability” and was happy with the result. He added he was’t using it for a published story but rather to keep tabs on certain data in a spreadsheet he created.

As a journalism instructor at Colorado College, I have spoken to students about when and where AI chatbots might be useful and when they might pose conflicts or prove detrimental to their work.

For an upcoming intro class, I plan to offer an in-class activity in which I give students a long, rambling, garbled verbatim quote from a source who had witnessed a major vehicle accident and ask them to paraphrase it using partial quotes as if it were part of a news story. (Doing this, I’ve found, is not easy for students who are not used to news writing; they tend to over-quote and lack confidence in paraphrasing.) I’ll offer the same prompt to ChatGPT and then we’ll assess how their work compares to the machine.

Glenn Wallace, an editor at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, told me in an online public conversation that he didn’t like the idea of a reporter using AI for a such a task. Journalists “have a responsibility to the source to reflect quotes accurately,” he said, so it “feels unethical to leave it in AI hands.” (I disagree to an extent; I don’t have to take every suggestion the machine offers, but if it provides a good one I certainly might.) Ryckman at The Sun told me that if he found out one of his journalists had used AI to assist in a similar capacity on a story without asking first he’d likely look askance.

This week, I asked ChatGPT to flag any inconsistencies with Associated Press style for news writing in a few writing samples and was surprised at its ability to trouble-spot issues. The chatbot knew to check that Colorado College’s Kathryn Mohrman Theatre wasn’t spelled as “theater,” said “‘fifty-two year old’ should be ‘52-year-old’,” suggested “alumna” instead of “alumni,” and then spat back a corrected draft in seconds. (I wasn’t as impressed when I tasked it with copy editing the lede of a published AP story.)

Asked if journalists at Colorado Public Radio could do something similar to help copy edit a story draft, editor Dale said, “we cannot use it to produce our journalism at this time.” (I’m not sure if what I asked particularly qualifies.)

Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has advised that newsrooms “have a duty to report when they’re using these tools,” but also acknowledged that it’s “still a very open question as to how.”

In 2021, The Associated Press launched a “Local News AI” initiative, which is funded by the Knight Foundation, to help U.S. local newsrooms “integrate automation and AI technology to expand the applications of these technologies for long term business stability.”

ChatGPT is not the only generative AI tool out there — though it gets much of the attention. The ability of some other similar tools are just wild. I imagine we’ll see shifting policies in newsrooms going forward about how we use them. As one longtime journalist and news manager said as I was reporting this: “boy is it moving quickly.”

Lawmakers decline to define ‘news media’ in open records legislation

Last month, some journalists and their advocates discussed on social media — and, including me, on a podcast — the efficacy of draft state legislation that appeared like it would try to define “news media” in Colorado. The language came in a potential proposed new law to reform the Colorado Open Records Act.

Part of it would have given journalists a break on the costs of open records requests. Now, a lawmaker has actually filed the legislation. But without that language.

From Jeff Roberts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

Senate Bill 23-286, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver, does not contain previously floated language giving news organizations a break on costs nor does it give state agencies and local governments more time to respond to CORA requests made by members of the public and commercial entities. …

The language in the previous bill draft would not have stemmed fees for the general public but instead cut the research-and-retrieval rate in half for requesters who fit a definition of “news media.” Some journalists balked at having state lawmakers define who is considered part of the news media.

“Going into this process, addressing the rising fees charged to requesters was our top priority,” Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the press association, told Roberts. “Unfortunately, after months of discussions with multiple parties, we could not get enough support from other entities to present a bill that addressed costs and would be likely to pass. The Colorado Press Association continues to believe that costs are a major barrier for the press and public to obtain information that is by law public.”

Find out what the CORA modernization bill still does at the link above.

Aspen Times is featured in a national podcast about news stories that are … ‘KILLED’

“For every story that runs, countless others are killed before anyone gets the chance to read them.”

That’s the teaser for a podcast series hosted by journalist Justine Harman called “KILLED: The podcast that brings dead stories back to life.”

This week, Harman chose Aspen as the setting for the second episode of the latest season. She zeroed in on The Aspen Times and what happened last year shortly after the newspaper was sold to a West Virginia company called Ogden Newspapers.

The installment, titled “The Town,” begins with former Aspen Times Managing Editor Rick Carroll detailing how he uncovered a public document one day while searching local real-estate transactions. Then it moves into the turmoil that followed.

I won’t spoil it, but the story about The Aspen Times, a foreign billionaire developer’s lawsuit, and the ugly fallout from it, has been staple-gunned into the fabric of Aspen’s quirky legacy. It will live alongside the legend of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970s run for sheriff, scenes from the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” ski-bum tales, and yarns about John Denver.

“I was told that we’re not going to run this story because there’s no point in aggravating [the developer], and any coverage about [his] affairs in Russia had no bearing on what he wants to do at Aspen Mountain,” Carroll says in “KILLED.” (Carroll is now an editor at the rival Aspen Daily News.)

The podcast comes from the journalist’s perspective — the host said she did not hear back from a development group or Ogden — and I think it adds some details I hadn’t heard before about the efforts it took to finally get a story published following a dismissal of a lawsuit. (Listen to the 30-minute podcast for those details.)

“This story, it had to get out,” Carroll, says on the show, though he says the process “destroyed” a newsroom. He says he’s still researching the billionaire developer.

Fox settles Colorado-based Dominion defamation case for $787 million

Those who wanted to see well-paid personalities with TV programs on the national Fox cable channel squirm on the witness stand didn’t get their wish.

The Trump-aligned channel settled a $1.6 billion defamation suit brought by the Colorado-based voting-tech company Dominion for nearly $800 million.

The Washington Post had the inside scoop in a news story about how the settlement came about. It included this line:

Dominion was seeking accountability for Fox’s role in spreading the false claim that Dominion machines had been used to steal the White House from former president Donald Trump, a democracy-shaking lie that helped spark violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and, more than two years later, this consequential defamation battle in court.

Fox still faces another lawsuit from the voting company Smartmatic.

Coloradoan produces podcast about 150 years of local news

As the northern Colorado newspaper in Fort Collins — originally called the Larimer County Express — turns 150, its journalists are looking back.

The Gannett-owned newspaper has produced an episode about the history of the newspaper for its local history podcast “The Way it Was.”

The work includes a photo archive of the newsroom from the 1960s and ‘70s.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🏆 Congrats to Colorado College’s Chloe Brooks-Kistler and all the student journalists in Colorado who were honored with scholarships at The Denver Press Club’s 2023 Damon Runyon awards banquet last Friday.

🐦 I added more reporting to the published version of last week’s newsletter as more broadcast stations issued statements saying they were pausing their use of Twitter.

🗞 The annual convention of the Colorado Press Association, which serves the state’s news media outlets, will be in Denver at the Curtis Hotel from Sept. 21 to Sept. 23 this year.

🤫🗳 Colorado Democrats are defending their use of “secret ballots” at the Capitol, but told KUNC’s Scott Franz “they will release results.” The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition “told lawmakers last fall that the quadratic voting system violates Colorado open meetings law and ‘deprives the public of its right to observe decision making in real time,’” Franz reported.

⚰️ “Local journalism lost a true champion with the unexpected passing of former Citizen Telegram editor Sandra (Sandy) Hanson on April 4,” Theresa Hamilton reported in the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

🆕 The Montrose Daily Press announced new hires in its newsroom, which is “now headed by Managing Editor Jeremy Morrison.”

📲 Colorado Mesa University hosted a media literacy panel this week that featured KKCO journalist Hannah Hickman “alongside a staff member from the Daily Sentinel, a CMU librarian, and a Latino journalist.”

📢 Some in Denver media used their platforms to try and help police identify a baseball game attendee — “Let’s help find him”— who authorities accused of simple assault when he allegedly tackled a person dressed as a dinosaur mascot named Dinger on the field.

📰 The Fort Morgan Times ran a front-page above-the-fold item about a police ride along that was written by the mayor.

⛳️ Colorado AvidGolfer, which calls itself the country’s “leading regional golf lifestyle brand,” announced it has a new content director, Jim Bebbington. Founding editor Jon Rizzi is retiring.

🗣 The U.S. Supreme Court this week “seemed poised to raise the standard on when a person could be convicted of stalking, further defining what is ‘threatening speech,’ based on a 2016 Colorado conviction of a man who harassed a Littleton singer songwriter,” reported Colorado Public Radio’s Allison Sherry.

➡️ Hailee Langowski explained “the Real Storytelling Project” at CSU Pueblo as “community-based, hyper-local storytelling” focused on the Pueblo and Southern Colorado community, and “genuinely understanding and investigating the stories happening at the hyper-local level.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.