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CNET’s Publisher Having Trouble Selling It Due to AI Scandal

CNET parent company Red Ventures has been looking to sell off the stalwart technology site, according to a new report from Axios. But unfortunately for Red Ventures, it's had a tough time finding a buyer — and CNET's AI scandal bears at least some of the blame.

Back in January 2023, Futurism found that CNET had been quietly publishing AI-generated articles under the dubious byline "CNET Money Staff." To see that the articles weren't written by humans, you had to click that byline, resulting in a popup message, which many felt was insufficient disclosure. And on closer inspection, over half of the AI-generated CNET articles ended up containing glaring errors and plagiarism that resulted in corrections.

CNET defended the effort as an attempt at "testing a new technology so we can separate the hype from reality," as CNET's then-editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo explained it at the time. (Guglielmo has since been promoted to CNET's "senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy.") But there's a difference between running a few well-labeled experiments with a new technology, and very quietly integrating it into an all-cylinders-firing SEO machine. CNET's so-called experiment was soon followed by large layoffs. Soon afterward CNET staffers unionized, naming AI as a specific concern.

"In this time of instability," the CNET Media Workers Union wrote in its mission statement, released back in May, "our diverse content teams need industry-standard job protections, fair compensation, editorial independence, and a voice in the decision-making process, especially as automated technology threatens our jobs and reputations."

Which brings us back to the Axios report. Red Ventures has reportedly been shopping the decades-old website around for months and is hoping to make back "half" of the $500 million that it paid for the acquisition of CNET — along with a few smaller sites — back in 2020. Axios' sources say that CNET, despite its declining traffic, is profitable. And yet obstacles remain, which according to Axios include a "slower ad market, raising interest rates," and "brand reputation" issues related to the AI blunder.

"Souces who have been pitched on the asset have cited concerns about CNET's reputation following a controversy last year over CNET's failure to disclose the use of AI in articles during a publishing experiment," Axios reported.

It's unclear how Red Ventures' reported sale talks might ultimately shake out, and broader media and economic conditions will surely play a part in any eventual CNET price tag. But the fact that potential buyers are citing the website's AI scandal at all feels notable. Brand reputation matters, to readers and advertisers both, and CNET's AI saga could be considered a case study for how AI use — and misuse — can impact an outlet's esteem.

CNET made its name as a respected beacon of tech reporting, a reputation that fostered a dedicated readership and drove its price to nearly $2 billion back in 2008. But the brand equity that CNET took decades to build has since been juiced to near-annihilation by Red Ventures, which, as a January report from The Verge showed, has used CNET's name to transform into an SEO-hungry shell — to the detriment of the website's readers and employees.

As with the similarly-AI-scandal-plagued Sports Illustrated, watching venerable publications fall from grace and decades of good work to become tarnished as a result of ill-conceived AI efforts — led by execs eager to glean some extra eyeballs — is painful. Ideally, should another media company take CNET off Red Ventures' hands, a renewed investment into the website's journalism could stand to restore the website's rep. Let's just hope that any new owner does right by CNET employees, who have already dealt with their fair share of strife.

More on AI and journalism:  Readers Want Publications to Label AI-generated Content