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Sports Illustrated Fabricated: Some Thoughts on the SI/AI Fiasco

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When the AI scandal at Sports Illustrated broke a few days ago, I initially wrote something about it but then decided not to publish it because (a) it’s not uni-related and (b) saying anything critical about SI at this point kinda feels like punching down.  But then a bunch of readers got in touch to ask what I thought of the situation, so I’ve decided to publish something after all.

Disclosure/reminder: I wrote a decent amount for SI in 2019, first as a freelancer and then, for about seven weeks, as a staff writer. My SI archive is here. When SI was sold in October of 2019, I was among 40 or so employees who were laid off by the new owners (thereby making me the answer to a sports media trivia question). Most of the people I worked with at SI were let go at the same time I was, and most of the remaining ones have left since then, although I see that one editor I worked with is still there.

Anyway: In case you missed it earlier this week, Futurism writer Maggie Harrison had a devastating report on how a bunch of articles on SI’s website — product reviews, mostly — were apparently written by AI. The articles, many of which included laughably bad writing and formatting, included phony bylines for non-existent authors, complete with AI-generated author head shots that were easily traced to an AI stock photo source. As Harrison wrote, the incident “marks a staggering fall from grace” for the once-celebrated media outlet.

SI issued an incomplete and unconvincing denial, saying that the articles in question — which were scrubbed from shortly after Harrison’s story was published — were produced not by AI but, rather, by a third-party vendor to which SI had outsourced some of its content (a questionable practice to begin with). SI said the vendor had used phony bylines “to protect author privacy” — a nebulous statement that raises more questions than it answers and for which SI provided no further explanation. The whole thing sounds really tawdry and pathetic. Get the full story by checking out Harrison’s excellent article.

So what do I think? For starters, this is just the latest evidence that I dodged a bullet when SI cut me loose, because the situation there has apparently become more toxic and ethically suspect by the day. (In case you’ve forgotten some of the previous nonsense, look here and here.)

This is the part where I’m supposed to say, “This is so sad. I grew up reading SI and remember how much I looked forward to each issue. They did world-class journalism for years, and now it’s come to this.”

But let’s get real: That SI, the one that so many of us grew up with, hasn’t existed for a long time. SI still has some good writers on the payroll, most notably Tom Verducci and Pat Forde, but at this point it’s basically a zombie brand, a hollowed-out shell whose old identity exists primarily in name, logo, and memory, not in substance. Since 2018, SI has been sold twice. Its current owner, the Authentic Brands Group, isn’t even a publisher. ABG collects legacy brands and added SI to its portfolio because it envisioned opening a bunch of SI spas, SI hotels, SI restaurants, SI gyms. (That hasn’t exactly worked out for them — shocker — and the decline of SI as a respected media operation surely won’t help.) Since ABG isn’t a publisher, they license the publishing operation to a bunch of VC-backed dude-bro douchebags called The Arena Group (formerly TheMaven), whose CEO previously faced multiple workplace accusations of sexual harassment and creating a “frat house environment.” Although an internal review cleared him, he admitted under oath that he ranked the “hotness” of female colleagues and openly speculated about whether one female co-worker had a side job as a stripper and/or had slept with another co-worker.

When you look at all of that, this week’s report about SI publishing AI-generated content — and then blaming it on a rogue vendor, which is barely a step up from “The dog ate my homework” — isn’t so surprising. On the contrary, it’s perfectly in keeping with what this organization now is, and we should expect more of the same in the weeks and months to come.

It’s worth noting that SI isn’t the only media outlet that’s looked at AI and thought, “Hey, now we can publish content without having to pay those pesky writers!” These adventures have generally not gone well, at least so far. Gannett, which owns a few hundred newspapers across America, decided to “pause” its use of AI a few months ago after a bunch of AI-generated sports reports went viral for all the wrong reasons. Less than two months later, Gannett was fending off accusations of posting AI-generated content on its shopping website. Other outlets using AI in ethically dubious ways lately have included the A.V. Club, BuzzFeed, CNET, Gizmodo (another place I’ve written for), and others, as desperate publishers flail about in search of a viable business model in the era of internet media.

On the other hand: An AI-generated swimsuit issue would likely be extremely entertaining, so let’s hope SI gives that a shot. Hey, no need to pay those pesky models and photographers! What could possibly go wrong?



ITEM! "C" Section

For this week’s Uni Watch Premium article on Substack, I’ve done a deeeep dive on NFL captaincy designations, from some early team initiatives in the 1980s and ’90s to the current “C”/star patch program (which has had a lot more nuances and adjustments over the years that you might think!). I learned a fair amount while researching this piece, and I think you’ll learn some from reading it.

You can read the first part of the article here. In order to read the entire thing, you’ll need to become a paying subscriber to my Substack (which will also get you full access for my Substack archives). My thanks, as always, for your consideration!



AMA Reminder

In case you missed it yesterday, I’m currently taking questions for the next quarterly installment of “Ask Me Anything,” which will be published next month on Substack (but will not be paywalled). If you’d like to submit a question, feel free to email it here. One question per person, please. I look forward to seeing your queries!



Can of the Day

As you may recall, yesterday’s Can of the day was for So Good Popcorn. That prompted a response from reader/commenter marchingkazoo, who posted a photo link to this spectacular can of So Good Potato Chips! The spokescharacter, whose head is shaped like a potato, is named Sally So Good — and she has a chip as a halo! Magnificent.

Comments (40)

    SI would have to improve drastically to become merely “a hollow shell of what is used to be.”

    They’re getting busted for fabricating using AI. So did Gannett/Gatehouse. Both companies are circling the drain financially, and trying to squeeze out whatever profits or mitigate their losses. SI is being passed around among people trying to convince the world that it’s similar to 40-50 years ago – only with more online features and outlets – like hand sanitizer during the pandemic, and Gannett/Gatehouse is both stripping newsrooms of employees while trying to convince readers that they still care about the work being done.

    But the biggest problem is that many people who lack an understanding of the media landscape and bigger picture see more credibility stripped away and make blanket statements about the journalism industry as a whole. So many places do it correctly – and a writer like Pat Forde for SI has been doing stellar work for years – but the moment something like this occurs, the naysayers believe that everyone is using AI and fabricating.

    The thing is that among the people who lack an understanding of the media landscape are most of the people who have been buying and investing in media for the last decade. I think the best example of that is Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway bought hundreds of small newspapers, almost all of them profitable, and quickly shuttered most of them when it became clear that they couldn’t be turned into revenue-growing businesses. This speaks to a wider issue with our current stage of capitalism: Revenue growth, even at a loss, is somehow considered more successful and valuable than profitability. There’s no mystery about how a media company can make a profit; most do. What a media company currently cannot do is perpetually grow revenue.

    The profit growth part cannot be understated in media. Full disclosure I have worked for Gannett in the past and watched as hiring freezes hurt their product and when they did start to hire they hired less positions for less money with more responsibilities. I myself was asked to take on my bosses responsibilities after he left and then his bosses responsibilities when he was forced to retire and I was given nothing for those changes.

    Another place I worked the top boss was proud to spout that we ran at a 40% profit margin while I had to fight to get my employees that were responsible for running all our programming and commercials to get a wage of $13.50/hr. I told my bosses that wouldn’t be enough to keep good people I was told “This isn’t a position we value highly and can get anyone to do it.” After I was gone from there they lost half my staff within 6 months and have not been able to replace with quality skilled people.

    I’ve also seen small ventures inside of the organizations that ran profits get shuttled for only having a profit margin of 7% even though it supported jobs for multiple people.

    I once heard a phrase that “Work is business and not personal.” This may be true for the top people of a company but for the workers this is one of the most personal things they do as this supports themselves and their families. Jobs aren’t jobs, they’re people.

    I can’t imagine surrendering my human agency by allowing AI to literally speak (or write) for me…

    This is the first I am hearing about any of this. Can’t say I’m shocked, as this was going to happen sooner or later either way.

    It seems to me like this can be distilled down to a few simple things:

    Stop looking at the bottom line in EVERYTHING. Yes, making money is the ultimate goal, right? But if salaries are pushing you into the red, you’re doing shit wrong. Which leads me to my next point…..

    Pay the fucking people who got you to where you are, and stop trying to cheap out!

    Aside from the plagiarism, inconstent factual content and wonky writng style, AI is just dandy. The reason creative workers (I’m a writer, designer and cartoonist) fear this technology is not because it’s “good,” but it’s perceived to be “good enough” by companies who want to save a buck and consumers who just accept what ends up in front of them. It’s good to see outlets like SI get called out for this nonsense.

    I totally second that good-enough observation that you make. First graphic designers were made more or less redundant thanks to software programs that deliver good-enough results and now the writers are in line to be replaced by good-enough AI content. As we slide downwards to a good-enough culture where sloppy mediocrity is the accepted norm and anything trying to reach above that level is seen as too expensive to produce and too complicated to consume.

    Totally agree with your point about “sloppy media is the accepted norm.” Even before the proliferation of AI-generated writing, I’ve often found myself looking at articles even from renowned outlets like the Washington Post and NY Times and wondering if proofreaders actually exist anymore. It feels like we’ve all just given up on the idea of journalism, or any writing, being grammatically correct.

    It goes so far beyond media. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to that say they so rarely eat out and have a GOOD meal, it’s so often “good enough” that they don’t complain outright and just never go back to the establishment. but everywhere charges you like you’re getting haute cuisine. I swear more times than not I’m paying for the person who writes the over-complicated menu descriptions and comes up with the punny names for the dishes, and the chef and kitchen staff are still waiting on paychecks and training sessions.

    I can’t tell if Sally So Good has hair on top, or if she’s suffering horse shoe pattern baldness. Regardless, she’s great.

    Very sad how far SI has fallen. In my childhood, pre-dotcom days, it was always exciting getting my hands on SI. ESPN may have given you news and highlights, but the real meat was in SI.
    I’m certain you’ll see AI write plenty of game recaps as it will simply read box scores and play by play sheets, and use an algorithm to spit out a game summary. I worry any time the feeling is there isn’t a need for a human voice in a report they’ll farm it out to AI.
    There is plenty to lament about in the quality of real journalism lately, and the dangers that occur when news is just a content business rather than the true forth estate, but is downright dystopian when AI is in charge of the news.

    Calling SI a zombie brand is spot on. It’s such a shell of what it once was, as is a lot of media.

    These “So Good” brand cans remind me of Ron Swanson’s “Very Good Building Company” form Parks and Rec. No fluff or sugar coating about it; if you want to be a success, just name yourself a success.

    As far as the captaincy patches go, I noticed that some teams are now going with the color of the jersey they are going on. If I’m not mistaken, when they first started, each team had a color of their primary “home” jersey. Then, that same patch was used on their “away” jerseys and “alternate” jerseys. Kind of like how the SEC patches on the football jerseys match the field markings regardless of what color the jersey is. Are the jersey matching colors something new this year? Or has this been going on for a while and I am just now noticing it?

    I’m fascinated with the concept of the Uncanny Valley and this SI story hits right at that. The AI articles are in English and are readable, but there’s something clunky and soulless about the syntax. It’s the same for most AI-written articles. And then the author headshots are next level creepy. Human faces, but dead eyes and empty smiles. Extremely off-putting.

    Like many others, I remember the thrill of SI arriving in our mailbox (every Thursday). Of course, that was many, many years ago. It’s sad. What exists today is SI in name only.

    Am I the only one here who started singing Sweet Caroline out loud in my office by myself when I looked at that can?

    This is why employee-owned media projects like Defector are so important. When Deadspin got Private Equity’d back in 2019, I was legitimately afraid there would be no recourse for fearless sports journalism. Every year when I see the charge for my Defector subscription come out, I smile because not only is the writing fantastic, but I’m supporting a really important mission in the media landscape.

    I am willing to pay for what is important to me.

    That includes UW and Defector.

    That said, I’ve watched the death of local sports reporting here. You can only lay off so many editors and reporters before it all collapses.

    If you like car culture, the best former writers from Jalopnik formed The Autopian. Basically analogous to the Deadspin/Defector comparison.

    I am constantly amazed at what types of products came in metal cans back in the day. And also, how the cursive G can be so far from the printed version of the letter! Is there any letter that is so different between cursive and printed writing?

    Yeah, agree on the G, so much pizzazz in that cursive G and many styles…
    I once asked the teacher in elementary why we wrote our lowercase a’s differently from the way they were printed in our books, she was not sure, no Google back then

    As usual, great writing by Paul. I share the memories of how great SI was. Started my subscription in 1972.

    So sad how the “dude-bro douchebags” like these clowns and Pat McAfee are celebrated.

    Is this anything but the inevitable outcome of the last 25 years though?

    In the 1980s and 1990s we subscribed to things, we looked at ads. We paid for our content. They gave us good content in return.

    In this decade, we insist on content being free. We don’t pay for subscriptions and we install ad-blockers. We bypass paywalls. We don’t pay for anything.

    Do I have any right to complain that SI has gone to shit if I’m not willing to pay for it? I don’t like what happened to SI but isn’t it clear that the business model is fundamentally broken? They’ve lasted longer than 95% of print media, I guess this is what the death throes of an unsustainable business look like.

    Good point. Newspapers and magazines brought much of this upon themselves. They put all of their content online for free. Then realized this wouldn’t work and reversed course by charging for that same previously free content. By then it was too late. Can’t out the genie back in the bottle. People had been trained to think it should all be free.

    Actually I didn’t know your views on this, at least as it regards “legacy media”. I knew how you felt about this site and and independent content creators, but I don’t know that I’d seen your take on SI and the economics of the larger media landscape.

    Basically, I’ve been saying for years that the old model of ad-supported journalism is unsustainable on the web (for lots of reasons, which I won’t recount here), which is why so many media outfits have folded in the past 20ish years. The subscription model works, but people have developed an entitlement mentality about getting their journalism for free, so we end up with crummy clickbait content. It’s a race to the bottom, and we’re all worse off for it.

    I feel terrible because a, week and a half ago, I asked for a yearly magazine subscription of si for my birthday. I am a middle school teacher and was doing it as an option for my students to read. Try to provide something that brought me joy at their age, I feel played.

    I read news articles with misprints and grammatical errors all the time. Just last week, I read an article where the writer at a major publication spelled his own name incorrectly.
    It’s been that way for awhile. And will be for the foreseeable future, til we have people who take pride in their work once again.

    Typos and such have nothing to do with people not having “pride in their work.” It has to do with newsroom staffs being cut to the bone by ownership. Proofreaders and copyeditors have always been the first to go. And writers/editors are under huge pressure to produce more content faster than ever before, because more/faster content means more clicks. Add those things together and you get typos and grammatical errors.

    As I’ve been saying for years, all of this is because a business model based on people getting to read things for free (a) results in lousy content and (b) is unsustainable. You get what you pay for.

    I once misspelled *my own* name in a byline because I was in a rush and no one was there to double-check it. It might not be about pride. It might simply be the result of a tired brain two minutes before deadline and management won’t pay for someone else to be there to check on things before they go to print.

    You mention the AV Club and I watched that decline much more closely than I’ve paid attention to the SI nosedive. What really gets me is not the inevitable AI pieces that have started showing up, but the way the changing landscape changed the human writers that stuck around after all of the acquisitions. All the attention paid to stats and emphasis on clickbait/comment provoking really changed the work of some good pop culture and arts writers. Makes it harder to care when they start letting machines crank the stuff out.

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