As the hand-wringing around AI and its place in the newsroom continues, The New York Times is taking a giant leap forward with the announcement of its first editorial director of Artificial Intelligence Initiatives.
And while the human filling those shoes is plenty important — in this case, Zach Seward, a former reporter and Quartz founding editor who NYT leaders described as “the rare journalist to also serve as chief product officer, then C.E.O., and finally editor in chief” — it’s the mere existence of shoes to fill that makes this so newsworthy.
When last we left The Gray Lady, reports were that executives were far from impressed with a Google presentation of an AI product capable of generating news stories, describing Google’s pitch as unsettling and taking for granted the human element and efforts behind news production. This week’s naming of an AI-focused editorial director is in no way an about-face from that stance either, as the announcement’s lede declares a larger AI mission before revealing Seward’s name in the second graf.
“How should The Times’s journalism benefit from generative A.I. technologies? Can these new tools help us work faster? Where should we draw the red lines around where we won’t use it?”
When the job listing was initially posted, Axios’ Ina Fried wrote that this is “not going to be an easy job” as journalists are both “fearful and anxious about the new technology.” Hearing Seward and NYT executives talk about the position and its greater hopes, however, I’m heartened that the AI technologies in question are being cast as promising tools rather than mandated mechanisms.
In his own Linkedin announcement, Seward said he’ll be “leading a new team that will experiment with internal and reader-facing applications of generative AI and other machine-learning techniques.” NYT’s announcement says Seward’s initial responsibilities will be to establish generative AI principles with other newsroom leaders, then guide journalists with using AI tools in their work.
“[Seward] will help design training programs for curious journalists and will partner with colleagues across the company to determine where to incorporate generative A.I. tools into our publishing tools and digital products,” the announcement says. “He will track the industry’s quickly shifting landscape to help ensure that The Times keeps pace as the internet evolves along with users’ habits and reader expectations.”