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Thornton: Thoughts on artificial intelligence, economics and the future of hyperlocal journalism

pic of Robot or Cyborg for Computer Reports artificial intelligence Generated content author
A stock image of a cyborg has been adopted by the Arizona Digital Free Press to help readers understand the reporting they are seeing labeled ‘computer reports’ is being done with the assistance of artificial intelligence. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress.com)
By Terrance Thornton | Point of View

Advancements in technology will forever shape a capitalistic republic such as the great one we are living in today — the United States of America is the greatest country planet Earth has ever known.

I fundamentally believe each of the themes I just introduced whereas the United States is a republic based on ideas, laws and the fundamental pursuit of equitable happiness for all. While those ideas may not be the absolute reality, I think we can all agree that is our pursuit as a country and as a people.

Much of the quality of life we enjoy today is based on the advancements of technology fueling a capitalistic society hinging on a few core economic principles: More profits through efficiency creating the same quality product at less cost.

From my perspective, our American way of life is built to embrace artificial intelligence.

I can’t think of one beautiful example in American history where we did not overcome difficult endeavors without innovative thought — our Revolution is the first that comes to mind.

But what we are really discussing here is the fundamentals of 21st century economics and the vast majority of businesses — American journalism in particular — are using a playbook from the 20th century.

Let me explain: If you wanted to become a newspaper publisher in, say, 1981, you needed several million dollars to even begin that conquest. And, if you wanted to begin a television news network you first had to conquer the Federal Communications Commission before you had the opportunity to burn money before turning a profit.

These factors were explained to me as ‘barriers to business’ and it’s those models you stay away from when one contemplates a shift in industrial practices based on a revolution that started with a $5 salary at Ford Motor Co. and fully realized with the 401K plan and corporate benefits package today.

First came the industry, then the industrial worker and finally the corporate office worker. These were all inherently good things for the quality of life for the average American living in the 20th century.

Let me be very clear: I admire the business leaders of the last 100 years very much and my point here is that business practices we know today are relics of an industrial revolution that created much of what comforts us today. Things like zoning law, child labor law and modern civil liberties all came from this birth of ideas and practices fueled by American factories then fully realized by the growth of corporations.

But just as industrial technology changed the job of bricklayers and textile workers — artificial intelligence will change the job of many more no matter what sector you inhabit of the American economic ecosystem.

Why the Digital Free Press works with artificial intelligence

Are there robots on assembly lines? If you need your gallbladder removed does a robot conduct that surgery? When I open my laptop why do I see letters I understand and not numbers? Marvels of the modern world, I suppose, using automated code to conduct mundane tasks that need be done perfectly every time.

Are we built to not contemplate the world around us? Of course, we are, so let me show how we are using AI at the Arizona Digital Free Press to improve our minuscule corner of the World Wide Web.

When I think about journalism, I think about it as the practice of letting folks know what has occurred — not what my neighbors should think about the news of the day.

I don’t believe our government is inherently evil and, furthermore, understanding what we have done as a country through our local, regional and federal government makes me comfortable saying that. Also, I have worked with every level of government in this state across a few counties and I can unequivocally tell you most if not all are there to help.

Having said that, as population has swelled here in Maricopa County, government has grown to the point no 20th century news model can adequately cover the thing anymore. When I first started in this business and when I watched ‘All the President’s Men’ in my U.S. history class, I remember hearing about places journalists would call “The metro desk” or “The copy desk,” where they had folks covering every aspect of local government from happenings at City Hall to a reporter actually working the police beat.

What a wonderful time it must have been to be a reporter able to really cover a facet of government that needed to be covered.

Today a good number of things you see are created just for you: government will issue PRs about the good things happening and police departments will give you what you want: ‘blood and guts’ prepared, curated and delivered right to your inbox. Are those behaviors inherently evil? Are they meant to confuse and obfuscate the truth? No, of course not. These good people are just doing their job letting the public know of critical events or occurrences.

Honestly, that is their role, and they do a very good job.

But from a purely skeptical, journalistic perspective this does not serve the public as it should because if we don’t actually know the stripped-down truth we can’t innovate and make things better. This is just an unintended consequence of dealing with ‘Public Opinion,’ as Walter Lipmann may have put it.

A photograph of Scottsdale City Hall where the Arizona Digital Free Press has begun implementing AI reporting on advisory meeting — boards and commissions — topics and votes. (Photo by Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress.com)
How the Digital Free Press works with artificial intelligence

The No. 1 goal of journalism in the 21st century? In my opinion, it rests on the ability of interpreting government nomenclature and deciphering legalese — both of which are vestiges of ‘barriers to business’ of the 20th century.

The Arizona Digital Free Press is utilizing the Google Cloud Console and within that interface is the future of our modern world, in my estimation. For reporting on the complex language of zoning code we are using a custom document OCR process that allows any PDF to be organized instantly to allow all actions items to be copied quickly.

We then take copy filled with zoning jargon, legal definitions and confusing language and ask Vertex AI to summarize those words. Here is an example of how that process looks:

Original copy:

This case was continued by the Planning Commission on April 26, 2023. Request by the City of Scottsdale to amend the Zoning Ordinance (Ord. No. 455), Article I, Section 1.806 (Disability Accommodation), Article I, Section 1.920 (Request for Disability Accommodation), Article III, Section 3.100 (Definitions), Article V, Section 5.012 (Single-family Residential, R1-190– Use Regulations), and Article V, Section 5.102 (Single-family Residential, R1-43 – Use Regulations) to clarify what constitutes a care home and modify the process and criteria for a Disability Accommodation.

Because I have spent my entire professional career deciphering government nomenclature, jargon and editorial preference at several different levels, I can you tell you with a certain level of confidence what the above means. I understand, but do my peers?

This is the business of journalism — helping people understand complex ideas in a way we all can understand.

The new AI-powered ‘Computer Reports’ now enables the Arizona Digital Free Press to generate relevant, accurate copy that was fact-checked and labeled as such explaining to readers the general outcomes of what was reported at City Hall by the public servants there.

Summarized copy of the above:

“The city of Scottsdale is requesting to amend its zoning ordinance to clarify what constitutes a care home and modify the process and criteria for a Disability Accommodation. The amendment would allow for the use of care homes in single-family residential zones, as long as they meet certain requirements. The amendment would also make it easier for people with disabilities to obtain a Disability Accommodation, which would allow them to live in a care home that meets their specific needs. The Planning Commission continued the case on April 26, 2023, to allow for more time to gather public input. Heather Dukes provided public comment on the care home zoning amendment. Vice Chair Joe Young moved to recommend approval of Case 1-TA-2022, the care homes zoning amendment, which was seconded by Commissioner Barney Gonzales. The motion passed with a vote of 5-2, with Planning Commission Chairwoman Renee Higgs and Commissioner George Ertel dissenting.”

I believe the above narrative is much better to understand and serves the general public well. The above practice is how I envision the Digital Free Press utilizing AI to help inform, educate and serve the readers of our Scottsdale, Town of Paradise Valley and Phoenix markets.

But a question has emerged, does the context of a vote matter? What do you think? Let me know at tfthornton@arizonadigitalfreepress.com.

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