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Red Ventures pressured writers to appease advertisers, workers allege

The Charlotte, North Carolina office complex of marketing firm Red Ventures is seen in an undated handout image. (Photo courtesy Red Ventures, Graphic by The Desk)

Marketing firm Red Ventures pressured some of its staff writers and editors to change the tone of their content in order to appease high-value advertisers, an unusual tactic that could undermine the editorial reputation of the company’s publications.

The allegations were made by former Red Ventures employees who spoke on condition of anonymity to tech publication The Verge, which reported on mass layoffs that occurred this week at the company’s various online publications.

The issue highlights the struggle some online publications face when writing critical stories about companies and services that may also advertise on those platforms. While many newsrooms have invisible walls separating their editorial and sales teams, that wall has started to erode in recent years as legacy news brands chase online advertising dollars through ad networks and affiliate programs.

Red Ventures uses a mixture of both to generate revenue on its websites, which include the tech publication CNET, health website Healthline and travel portal The Points Guy.

CNET has come under severe scrutiny in recent weeks after the website Futurism exposed the tech publication’s use of artificial intelligence to write stories primarily focused on financial topics. The robot CNET used included erroneous information that was overlooked by editors, as well as content plagiarized from competing websites.

In late January, CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo affirmed the website’s use of artificial intelligence, describing it as an innovative way to produce content while freeing up the website’s writers and editors to focus on other stories.

“We stand by the integrity and quality of the information we provide our readers, and we believe you can create a better future when you embrace new ideas,” Guglielmo wrote.

Behind the scenes, Guglielmo was critical of reporters at other websites who exposed CNET’s sloppy use of artificial intelligence. On a conference call with CNET reporters, the editor said their use of artificial intelligence wasn’t done “in secret,” but rather on the downlow, and that the website always labeled content as being written by a robot.

But that was slightly misleading: Until Futurim’s stories, CNET’s disclosure on its use of robots to write content was buried under a generic “CNET Money Staff” byline, and readers were only made fully aware of who — or what — actually wrote the story when they hovered over the byline with their mouse. The disclosure was eventually made more prominent.

Despite the criticism, Red Ventures has doubled down on its use of artificial intelligence: This week, the company elevated Guglielmo to the new role of senior vice president of artificial intelligence content strategy. The move will see Guglielmo step down from her role as editor-in-chief of CNET and transition to an editor-at-large position with the brand.

Adam Auriemma, the editor-in-chief of Red Ventures’ financial advice website NextAdvisor, will take Guglielmo’s spot at CNET.

While Guglielmo and others have proclaimed CNET’s use of artificial intelligence as a way to help reporters and editors focus on other work, it also apparently allows Red Ventures to let go of key editorial staff without losing the kind of content that helps it earn money. On Tuesday, The Verge said around a dozen people were suddenly given pink slips, amounting to about 10 percent of CNET’s workforce.

“Today, the CNET Group implemented a reorganization of the team, which unfortunately meant saying goodbye to a number of colleagues,” a spokesperson for Red Ventures affirmed on Thursday. “While it was a difficult decision to let employees go, we believe this is critical for the longevity and future growth of the business.”

An internal memo sent to Red Ventures workers and reviewed by The Verge said the staff cuts were part of a broader strategy to reorient CNET’s brand around content that can draw traffic from Google and other search engines, which is expected to help the brand earn more money.

“To prepare ourselves for a strong future, we will need to focus on how we simplify our operations and our tech stack, and also on how we invest our time and energy,” Carlos Angrisano, the president of financial services at Red Ventures, wrote in the memo.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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