Sports Illustrated boss fired, but it’s nothing to do with AI fake news – quite the opposite

The Arena Group, publisher of Sports Illustrated, fired CEO Ross Levinsohn on Monday, characterizing the decision as a strategic business move that has nothing to do with the AI scandal that rocked the sports title a year ago.

The Arena Group described the executive firings as an effort “to improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company.”

Manoj Bhargava was named interim CEO, following last week’s termination of operations president and COO Andrew Kraft, media president Rob Barrett, and corporate counsel Julie Fenster.

Sports Illustrated in November was accused of publishing AI-generated stories under fake bylines, which the publication subsequently explained by claiming it hired a third-party content company that used human authors writing under pseudonyms.

Asked whether the executive suite purge had anything to do with the AI scandal, a company spokesperson told The Register that the issue was “water under the bridge,” and the leadership change was “a strategic business move and not a response to anything else.”

Indeed, the Arena Group appears to be committed to AI-generated content for its more than 320 brands, which in addition to Sports Illustrated include TheStreet, Parade, Men’s Journal, and HubPages. The company’s preliminary 2022 financial results, released February 3rd, 2023, include a statement by Levinsohn celebrating the potential of AI-assisted content generation.

“While AI will never replace journalism, reporting, or crafting and editing a story, rapidly improving AI technologies can create enterprise value for our brands and partners,” said Ross Levinsohn, who was CEO and chairman of The Arena Group at the time. “By leveraging these proprietary tools, we believe all those who create content on our platform will find opportunities to reach consumers in new ways.”

More recently, a September 14, 2023 financial presentation from The Arena Group describes its strategy as “the Uberization of Content.”

Borrowing Uber’s widely protested model of relying on independent contractors to reduce labor costs, the publisher sees itself providing “tools for Content Creators to run their sites efficiently, such as the Tempest CMS, video, editorial support, and monetization.”

This Uber-style cost-shifting arrangement is spelled out more explicitly in the company’s annual report: “Our Publisher Partners use the Platform Services to produce, manage, host and monetize their content in accordance with the terms and conditions of partner agreements between each of our Publisher Partners and us (the ‘Partner Agreements’). Our Publisher Partners incur the costs with respect to creating their content; thus, not requiring capital expenditures by us.”

The key to this vision is the firm’s Tempest content management system, which will be infused with assistive AI capabilities to “make journalists more effective.” The publisher – or more aptly publishing platform provider – in its presentation said that the AI tools it has been testing for seven months with brands like Sports Illustrated and Men’s Journal “reduced time to create articles by 80-90 percent.”

And it cites its partnership with Nota that lets Tempest users “create AI-assisted original video to match articles and social content.”

Incidentally, it took Uber, founded in 2009, 14 years to report a profit. ®

During Arena Group’s most recent Q3 2023 financial quarter, it reported revenue of $63.4 million, an 11 percent increase, and a net loss of 11.2 million, down 32 percent from a $16.5 million net loss in the prior year period. ®


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