Readers visiting the Columbus Dispatch’s high school sports section to catch up on their teams might have encountered a new sportswriter with a prolific byline — and an odd way with words.
The writer dubbed a football game between central Ohio’s Westerville North and Westerville Central a “close encounter of the athletic kind.”
Another story about a game between the Wyoming Cowboys and Ross Rams described a scoreboard that “was in hibernation in the fourth quarter.” When Ayersville High School staged a late comeback in another game, a write-up of their win read: “The Pilots avoided the brakes and shifted into victory gear.”
The articles weren’t written by a reporter, but by Lede AI, an artificial intelligence company that uses game scores to generate automated sports recaps for newsrooms. Lede AI’s stories in the Dispatch, which generally provided the outcomes of high school games and the scoring after every period of play, were blasted on social media as having a stilted tone and using bizarre turns of phrase.
The mockery appeared to have an impact. Gannett halted the use of Lede AI to write sports stories, Axios reported Monday. Lede AI-generated articles in the Dispatch and other Gannett-owned papers were appended with a notice that they’d been updated “to correct errors in coding, programming or style.”
In a statement, Gannett called the deployment of Lede AI an “experiment” in automation to aid its journalists and add content for readers.
“We have paused the high school sports Lede AI experiment and will continue to evaluate vendors as we refine processes to ensure all the news and information we provide meets the highest journalistic standards,” the statement read.
LedeAI CEO Jay Allred said in a statement to The Post that he believes automation is part of the future of local newsrooms and that LedeAI allows reporters and editors to focus on “journalism that drives impact in the communities they serve.”
“We sincerely regret that articles that we produced for Gannett newspaper sites on August 19th included some errors, unwanted repetition and/or awkward phrasing," Allred said. "We immediately launched an around-the-clock effort to correct the problems and made the appropriate changes.”
Lede AI’s website advertises the service as a powerful tool for newsrooms that can produce hundreds of accurate and compelling news stories in seconds to help newspapers capture web traffic and subscribers.
Other outlets that have published AI-generated content have also faced criticism. In January, CNET was lambasted by other tech sites for publishing AI-written stories that contained factual errors.
CNET also backtracked after its automated stories fell under scrutiny, calling its use of AI an “experiment” and pledging to review its stories for further corrections.
Lede AI’s high school sports recaps appear to rely on the names and mascots of the teams it was covering and a breakdown of each team’s scoring. The recaps were only a few paragraphs long and did not feature quotes, photos or descriptions of players or highlight moments from games.
Readers commenting on Lede AI’s attempts to fill the gap with its own aphorisms also noted that the service frequently reused the same lines despite its website claiming “thousands of human-written variations” in its language.
A Google search of the phrase “avoided the brakes and shifted into victory gear” found over a dozen local newspapers that used it to describe a high school team’s late comeback in a Lede AI-generated story, including Gannett-owned papers the Dispatch, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Tennessean, the Arizona Republic and the Courier Journal in Louisville. Those papers also all used the phrase “drew first blood” to describe a team that scored first in a game.
In at least one instance on the Dispatch, a Lede AI story also appeared to publish with a technical fault, reading “[[WINNING_TEAM_MASCOT]]” and “[[LOSING_TEAM_MASCOT]]” in place of Worthington Christian’s and Westerville North’s monikers in a soccer recap.
Gannett, which laid off hundreds of employees last year across its thinly stretched newsrooms as several newspaper companies struggled in poor economic conditions, did not respond to inquiries on how many of its newspapers used Lede AI to write stories and whether Lede AI-written stories were reviewed by writers or editors before publication.
The Dispatch, which wrote a feature in July about Westerville North’s new football coach with photos and player interviews, edited its AI-written recap of the team’s game from two weeks ago. The story no longer describes the showdown between the Westerville North Warriors and Westerville Central Warhawks as a “close encounter of the athletic kind.” In five paragraphs, the story reports the scores through the first three quarters of the game and Westerville North’s 21-12 win.