People don't mind the artificial

We had a great dinner last night with our partners at EX.CO at a new Zuma in Cannes. An interesting trend in high-end restaurants: They all inevitably become mini-chains with locations in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Dubai. There’s something fitting about this, as studios churn out sequels and algorithms push content creators to coalesce around a certain style that gives us things like the breathless TikTok voice. Originality is risky.

Below, publishers grapple with whether originality will get a premium in a world of synthetic content. 

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Around the Croisette 

The Cannes disconnect. Cannes presents as a boondoggle but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Lots of money is blown here. It is a good stimulus program for the region. There are haute season prices and then there are Cannes prices. This lands at an inconvenient time for companies mired in cutbacks. That would explain the mostly muted presence of publishers, which tend to gravitate toward more modest “house” setups that are far more efficient than the splashy beach locations and the yacht scene, which tends to be a floating Lumascape.

The coupons hangover. Google’s helpful content update went after a lucrative hustle for publishers: coupon pages that used the publisher’s distribution heft to generate pure margin. Publishers would freebase that if they could. But that’s gone, leaving another hole in many balance sheets. It also has laid bare the dominant role Google plays as publishers appeal to Google to grant them an exemption. For so long, Google was able to hide behind the algorithm to hand-wave away its role as the arbiter of the internet. These kinds of “manual actions” make that a harder position to take, particularly as regulators poke around in Google’s business. 

The case for and against a third newsroom. The notion of The Washington Post starting a third newsroom with a vague mandate to produce “service and social media journalism” was met with plenty of eye-rolls. One publisher observed this was done in most newsrooms many years ago, and by the way, has anyone checked on their referral traffic lately? That’s an old playbook. The counter, which I’m partial to, is that publishers needs to innovate on the core of their product, which is the content itself. This kind of setup isn’t ideal, but then again, as one executive pointed out, in what other industry would the CEO of a company basically not be in charge of a large swath of the company (aka the newsroom)? OK, maybe at X.

More on publishing in the age of AI. On Thursday, from 3-5, The Rebooting is hosing a cocktails and conversation podcast event at the Dotdash Meredith villa. I’ll be joined by DDM CEO Neil Vogel and Axios senior media reporter Sara Fischer. I want to know how the coming AI wave will change the type of content DDM produces. Even the best service content is at risk. I suspect like most media companies, DDM will emphasize personalities more. Sign up to join us.

Cannes tip: Resist FOMO. Your mileage may vary, but there is nothing more humiliating in life than a middle-aged person sweatily trying to get into a party. Where you are is where you should be, and that other place probably isn't better. Same goes for the person you’re talking to at that moment. They know when your eyes are darting around to find someone more important. 


Over the weekend, I stayed in the old town of Mougins, where Picasso once lived. It’s one of those perfectly manicured towns that have no modern economic function and instead have become tourist attractions. It’s better than fading away. For most visitors, it doesn’t matter if the places are less “real.” The simulation makes for a great Instagram.

There’s something of a lesson in publishing and media overall. The legacy media companies have proved more durable to challenges than the supposed legacy upstarts that were to take their place. It was a far simpler time when publishers wanted to kill each other. The squabbles between houses tend to fade into the background when the Whitewalkers show up. The Whitewalkers of Cannes have sprawling beach compounds.

I’ve found more urgency in my discussions with executives, with several embracing the existential meme. Nobody I have spoken to has peddled some quick fix or, God forbid, hope that tech companies will become partners. At best, the argument I hear for taking the OpenAI and other deals is that it will buy time. No need to cut off your nose to spite your face.

I asked executives for topics before our dinners. Here’s what one unloaded:

“Arguments can be made that we need to take the money, but that also means that we are doing a deal with the devil. Aside from that, what does the future of publishing look like with these companies utilizing our content to inform their models? I am talking 3-5 yrs from now. Let's just say we all did the licensing deals, took the money, etc. How do we think people will consume our work? We all know that the one-to-one relationship is key to our future, but that's just too obvious an answer (and a bit too unrealistic to live without social and Google serving as top-of-funnel/new audience levers)."

At the end of our dinner on Monday, one executive dryly noted that the path AI companies are taking is clear. They will summarize content on their own. Any negotiation will be around the prominence of the citation or whether publishers will get some kind of fee. More likely, these companies will be AI blenders, creating plausible deniability and mixing enough sources to give their well-paid lawyers enough ammo to fend off the inevitable lawsuits. Oh, hardly anyone I know doesn’t think there will be more legal battles. These deals are at best a truce.

Look to Perplexity Pages, this exec told me. To most in the news business, its treatment of the Forbes scoop about Eric Schmidt was basic plagiarism and theft. This was a paywalled article reformatted and presented neatly as an original piece of work. It was a Canal Street forgery. What’s more, this exec pointed out that monetizing these pages would be fairly simple.

The new AI news app Particle got some chatter. It is wooing publishers to voluntarily have their content included in an AI mashup. The economic case is dubious. I often hear the Netflix example, when media companies went for short-term licensing fees to build a competitor that would go on to dominate them. 

Of course, most AI companies will skip the licensing deals and settle on the hallmark of the industry: plausible deniability. Perplexity was just ham-handed in its approach. Forbes is sensibly using its leverage with a legal threat, which is a lot cheaper than actually suing a company that's raising another $250 million. The easier path for these AI engines is to simply combine enough sources to make determining provenance impossible and diluting leverage any individual publisher has. If only publishers could collectively bargain with tech.

There’s often an assumption that synthetic content will be inferior to human content. Early examples of AI usually back that up. Yet the thing with tech is it does not remain static. My podcast partner Alex keeps reminding me of that and how far these models have come. 

As much as I dislike the ethics of what Perplexity did with the Forbes content, I also think this will be embraced by consumers, just as AI summaries will be popular. GroupM expects “machine-driven content” to be 10% of what it classifies as “content-driven advertising.”

A safe bet: Consumers will embrace what’s cheap and convenient; advertisers will flock to what works. The publishers focused on rich audiences, including business publishers, are most protected. It’s telling at Cannes that the clutch of publishers with houses are mostly business news publishers. One publishing executive made the case that the current market makes it hard to have much of an ad business without a subscriptions base that fuels it with first-party data. 

There’s also hope the wave of AI causes the general public to appreciate “real” content more in a sea of synthetic garbage. I suspect that will come to pass, only what today is “garbage’ will inevitably improve to reach the good-enough bar. One CRO used the comparison to fast food vs farm to table, with publishers increasingly relying on personalities to drive loyalty and connection (and pricing power, which is the entire point of having a brand). 

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