Is Sports Illustrated a Zombie?
Maybe not yet... or maybe it has been for a while?
Hello and happy Monday, readers. I hope you all had a good weekend. Parker here. Let’s talk a little about Sports Illustrated.
Sports Illustrated is in a state of upheaval. Following its owner, Authentic Brands Group's, revocation of its publisher, The Arena Group's, license to publish the once-venerable sports magazine, massive layoffs have been announced, casting uncertainty over the publication's future. This crisis follows a November scandal revealed by Futurism, where SI was embroiled in a controversy for publishing AI-generated content under fictitious authors. This dual blow — financial instability and ethical shenanigans — marks a dramatic fall from grace for SI.
I don’t yet know what any of this means for SI, but it does once again have me thinking about the idea of zombie news brands.
But first, real quick: here’s the part of the newsletter where I ask you to consider signing up for the free version if you’re new here and ask existing free subscribers to consider upgrading to the paid version.
Just last month, for(another newsletter I co-write with ), I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Emily Sohn, who wrote a more than 13,000-word piece for Long Lead about Virginia Kraft called “The Catch.” While reading Sohn’s story of Kraft’s life, I was struck by how different magazine journalism was in past decades. Correspondents just roaming the. world, looking for stories, letting adventure take them where it did. Obviously, that’s not sustainable, and I know I’m romanticizing it more than a little bit, but it was sure a lot better than (massively paraphrasing), “Hey, we might try to secretly replace our writers with robots and then after we get caught, have our license to publish content we don’t even actually own revoked by the actual owners who are really just a bunch of private equity vampires who don’t care about journalism, either!”
One of the big problems facing journalism right now is that the old model doesn’t work, the only people who can possibly come up with a new model are people who genuinely care about the craft, but the only people with the type of funding to try new innovations tend to either simply want to rebuild the old system on top of itself (see: Bezos and other billionaires who buy up papers), are political propagandists who look for political returns on their media investments (see: the Mercers, Wilks brothers, etc.), or are these sorts of soulless private equity guys who don’t care about journalism at all and simply want to squeeze every last cent out of the properties they can.
That leaves… uh… individual writers who rely on individual subscribers (hello! Please subscribe!)
And the stray writer cooperative or two, like the upcoming Flaming Hydra, which seems to have every interesting writer and artist on the planet associated with it(!). Most everything else tends to fall into the other categories (some exceptions, I’m sure).
It all got me thinking about Newsweek, which is what happens when political propagandists take control of a formerly respected publication. As I wrote in 2022, Newsweek went from being a publication that treated it as news that Donald Trump retweeted someone as extreme as Jack Posobiec to actually publishing Jack Posobiec. What a difference a change of ownership, management, and editorial staff will make, right?
If you have the time, check that piece out. I think it does a pretty good job of explaining what’s at stake with zombie-hood and why I think places like Sports Illustrated and Newsweek matter.
Across the internet, such error messages have emerged as a telltale sign that the writer behind a given piece of content is not human. Generated by AI tools such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT when they get a request that goes against their policies, they are a comical yet ominous harbinger of an online world that is increasingly the product of AI-authored spam.
Presumably, no one sets out to create a product review, social media post or eBay listing that features an error message from an AI chatbot. But with AI language tools offering a faster, cheaper alternative to human writers, people and companies are turning to them to churn out content of all kinds — including for purposes that run afoul of OpenAI’s policies, such as plagiarism or fake online engagement.
As a result, giveaway phrases such as “As an AI language model” and “I’m sorry, but I cannot fulfill this request” have become commonplace enough that amateur sleuths now rely on them as a quick way to detect the presence of AI fakery.
AI usage on X has been particularly prominent — an irony, given that one of owner Elon Musk’s biggest complaints before he bought the social media service was the prominence there, he said, of bots. Musk had touted paid verification, in which users pay a monthly fee for a blue check mark attesting to their account’s authenticity, as a way to combat bots on the site. But the number of verified accounts posting AI error messages suggests it may not be working.
Writer Parker Molloy posted on Threads, Meta’s Twitter rival, a video showing a long series of verified X accounts that had all posted tweets with the phrase, “I cannot provide a response as it goes against OpenAI’s use case policy.”
That’s it for me today. Have a good rest of your day. Thanks!