Q&A on generative AI with Insider’s Stephanie Palazzolo
Mar 02, 2023 Amanda Jacobsmeyer
These days, you can’t visit the homepage of any publication without seeing at least one headline about generative AI, like ChatGPT. These innovations in AI have ignited public interest, resulting in newly-formed AI beats in nearly every publication. While this heightened focus presents an opportunity for AI and AI-adjacent companies to communicate strong points of view on a hot-button issue, it also introduces the challenge of breaking through the noise.
I recently sat down with Stephanie Palazzolo, a writer for Insider focused on the current trends in AI and the founders and VCs behind them. The goal was to learn how she and the team at Insider are identifying and telling the most interesting stories in AI. Stephanie has a unique perspective since transitioning from a tech finance career in San Francisco to the journalism world in New York City.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Amanda: With recent developments in generative AI, especially ChatGPT, we’re in the midst of an AI craze that has inspired quite a few publications to assign reporters to specific AI beats. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means for you at Insider?
Stephanie: I think it's interesting because there's so much overlap with AI and other beats when you ask yourself how generative AI touches law or medicine or other industries. So a lot of teams at Insider are writing about it in some fashion, but for me, there are a few topics that I'm interested in. Firstly, with Microsoft and Bing, and then Google coming out with Bard, there's a lot of talk about these Big Tech giants making a name for themselves in the field and how that will change the competitive landscape. I’m very curious about what’s going to happen in terms of newer AI-focused startups taking on the huge tech giants. In addition to that, I'm always interested in cool up-and-coming startups in general that are doing really interesting things with generative AI.
Because I cover venture capital as well, I've also been digging into how fundraising has been in the space, because I think there is a really interesting contrast between the rest of the tech world where we are seeing layoffs and cost-cutting and scaling back the crazy holiday parties and retreats, and generative AI, where everything is so hyped up, and there's still huge valuations and huge funding rounds. So I’m very curious how VCs are handling that in terms of not getting too caught up in the hype cycle.
And finally, I think a lot of people are curious about the ethics and safety around these AI products and how to sell them to customers in a safe way. How do you make sure that you protect against misinformation or your AI chatbot verbally abusing the customer, questions like that.
Amanda: So your background in tech finance definitely helps with those more VC-focused stories, I’m sure. What has helped with the more techy side of this beat?
Stephanie: I think the biggest obstacle for me was how technical AI is, and even though I do have a tech investment banking background, I didn't study computer science in school or anything that would help me understand what's happening behind the scenes. I’ve made a big effort to learn things as small as the correct terminology and make sure that I don't use the wrong term when I'm talking to a source. The way that I've tried to go about that is just by talking to VCs and founders that do come from a more technical background. If sources have a software engineering background, or they have a Ph.D. in AI, for example, I’ll be very upfront with them about how I’m really trying to understand the topic and ask for their help in explaining. In general, people are very understanding and very, very helpful with this. I think because this is such a new space for the general public and the average person is not anywhere close to being an expert yet, it feels like we're all learning about this together, which is nice and helps me write for a broader audience.
Amanda: Do you find that any of the experts you talk to have a hard time simplifying things for you?
Stephanie: For the most part, people have been a lot better at simplifying for me than what I expected. I think because it’s become such a public topic now, they're probably really used to their family members asking them about it. Every once in a while, I will still get somebody talking about a topic or using a phrase and I’ll have to pump the breaks and say, “Wait, can we go back for a second? I don’t know what that term meant.”
Amanda: Is it helpful to pitch you experts who can explain AI concepts and technologies in layman's terms?
Stephanie: In terms of people who are most helpful for me as a journalist, it’s the experts who have been in the field for a while. Whether it's a professor who studies AI or a founder or VC that's been working in AI for a long time, I feel like those pitches definitely appeal to me more because it's a really good opportunity for me to ask them questions like, “What are the really exciting things happening that you feel like the average person isn't talking about?” and they’ll have the historical context and specialized knowledge to answer. It’s less helpful to hear from people that have moved into the space recently, that may be coming from a previous field like crypto.
Amanda: At Inkhouse, we partner with a lot of the tech companies working behind the scenes to make AI tick. Is this an area you cover, or are you more interested in looking at AI through a consumer or business lens?
Stephanie: There’s definitely a balance. At Insider I write more directly about how AI will affect businesses versus consumers. On the consumer side, there are tons of really interesting topics to debate, but I think it's just so early that nobody really knows for sure, for example, if search will be changed forever or if I can buy an AI best friend. It’s very hard to assess those things right now, so I focus more on how AI is affecting businesses because I feel like there are more clear use cases there.
But beyond these generative AI companies, there's a whole ecosystem of companies around the field that is basically allowing these startups to be created. You’ve told me about Databricks and the infrastructure they provide, or there are startups out there that are helping companies label their training data or run their models more cost-effectively, for example. There is this whole surrounding ecosystem that helps generative AI become more accessible to people, or makes it more efficient or cheaper, or faster for people to develop companies. That's a less-covered space, but definitely something that I'm interested in writing about and learning more about.
Amanda: Highly technical AI stories are interesting to a very specific audience, but are likely hard to grasp for a majority of readers. How do you balance the need for page views with the stories you find most interesting and important?
Stephanie: It’s always a tough balance to hit, because I'm personally such a sucker for relatable stories like what someone on our team wrote recently about letting ChatGPT write their Hinge profile. I think that's so fun and interesting to read. Maybe the average person is less likely to click on something explaining how this obscure startup is labeling data or something, but luckily at Insider we reach both a broad consumer audience and a more venture capitalist, business-minded audience, so we can do both. For example, I'm working on this round up of interesting generative AI startups, and there are a lot of startups on there that are more in that infrastructure ecosystem. If I was a VC reading that, I might not know who the winners in generative AI applications are going to be, but I know that no matter who the winner is they're going to need all these supporting technologies to help them. And so that kind of story would help me know who to invest in. Having different types of readers definitely helps us cover a broader range of topics. As a writer, there’s always this interesting balance between writing about what you're interested in and writing about what your audience is interested in.
Amanda: I’m interested to hear more about how Insider plans to differentiate its AI coverage compared to other publications. What is your team's game plan?
Stephanie: As I mentioned before, we have been taking a very broad approach to this in terms of what teams write about AI. We have multiple tech teams that are doing different angles: There's one team that does breaking news, another team that does tech analysis pieces in front of our paywall, and we have a bunch of different industry-focused teams that are writing about how AI will affect their industry. So I’ll talk a little bit about my own strategy for covering the space. Since the beginning of my time at Insider seven months ago, I have always heard the team say that we only want to write about the most fascinating stories. The way that I have interpreted that is finding stories that have a lot of tension in them, or take you behind the scenes at a startup or VC firm, or behind the scenes of a trend. This space is definitely one that has a lot of tension right now with some of those topics I mentioned earlier, like the Big Tech giants versus the small, scrappy startups, or the weird contrast between huge valuations and rounds in generative AI versus all the other tech companies that are laying off tons of people. Tackling all those questions and those fascinating contrasts is something that's really interesting to me. I'm also interested in highlighting the people that are leaders in the space, whether it's VCs or professors or researchers, or founders. And so I've been trying to look around for people to do profiles on, and just to hear about how they got interested in the space.
Amanda: What do you personally think about the AI hype this news cycle? A lot of the coverage, especially about Bing and Bard, seems to be reporters having terrible or unhelpful experiences.
Stephanie: I think on one hand, with the tech innovation that's happening, I don't think that's over-hyped. Over the past years, there have been huge advancements within AI, like the Transformer paper. That's really exciting, and I think everybody from AI researchers and academics to founders is rightfully very excited about it. But I think some of the consumer stuff may be over-hyped in terms of how to turn this cool tech into an actual business. There's a lot more that goes into a business than just having a useful base product. You have to find who your customers are and if they actually even want to pay for this. Balancing the very high computing costs with running an AI business and being profitable – there are lots of questions around the business side.
One issue with the hype is that people are kind of scrambling over themselves to release stuff as quickly as they can and beat everybody else to the punch. I feel like that's not really the right approach to take with this – people need to be careful and test things before they release them to the market. An issue with a lot of AI is that it's not always 100 percent correct, it's optimizing for different things than a human would optimize for. Even if it gets 95 percent accurate, that five percent could be what actually makes the difference. Where it’s at now, you still need a human that's in the loop and able to check what the AI is doing.
Amanda: Have you used ChatGPT in your work yet?
Stephanie: I have not actually used it in my work. This may be a hot take, but I don’t feel like it’s that good at writing. It’s great at answering questions and summarizing, but it’s a solid B average writer so far. It does motivate me, though, to be as good as I can be in my writing. Maybe in the future, it will get to a point where I can use it more in writing, but it doesn’t seem to be up to my standards yet in terms of what I want to be putting out there under my name.
Amanda: What are the things PR professionals have done that are most helpful to you? What has been most annoying?
Stephanie: I do think that being pitched conversations with seasoned experts, founders, or VCs, even if I don't necessarily use what they say right away, has been really helpful. I file them away in case someday I am writing a story about specific topics we discussed. So PR people who are willing to connect me with experts, even if that conversation doesn't result in an immediate story, are helpful for me in the long term. In terms of annoyances, because I'm somewhat new to journalism I’m maybe not as jaded yet, so my list of pet peeves is short. The one thing that I know I don't like is when PR people I’ve never interacted with call me. If we haven’t talked before, there's always a couple of minutes where I'm thinking, who is this? Should I answer? And then I'm having to search for their name on the spot. So I prefer email or even a text. Just text me first before you call, that also works.
I'm still in the phase where I am learning and finding it really interesting to understand how PR and journalism interact. I didn’t know those internal workings before starting at Insider because I don’t come from a journalism background. Ultimately it’s all about managing relationships and understanding who I want to talk to, and that’s all very new to me, so I feel like it's a very exciting thing to explore.