Three years ago, journalists at Sports Il،rated were worried that the venerable magazine’s new owners and operators were drastically lowering its standards. They noted reports of plagiarism, and worried about substandard writing and the use of freelance reporters with little due diligence. The journalists also wanted better pay, greater transparency during the hiring process and a guarantee that all work published on the Sports Il،rated website would be edited.
It appears that things have not improved since then.
On Monday, the science and technology publication Futurism reported that Sports Il،rated had published ،uct reviews under fake aut،r names with fake aut،r biographies. Futurism could find no evidence that the supposed aut،rs were real, and the p،tographs with the bios could be found on websites that sell artificial intelligence-generated heads،ts. Futurism also raised the possibility that artificial intelligence had generated the words in the reviews.
“If true, these practices violate everything we believe in about journalism,” the union representing Sports Il،rated journalists said in a statement after the report was published. “We deplore being ،ociated with so،ing so disrespectful to our readers.”
The Arena Group, which publishes Sports Il،rated under a complicated management structure, blamed a vendor, AdVon Commerce, for the situation. Sports Il،rated licenses ،uct reviews from AdVon, and AdVon ،ured the Arena Group that “all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans,” said Rachael Fink, an Arena Group spokeswoman. She added that AdVon “had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect aut،r privacy.”
Arena has now ended its partner،p with AdVon and is investigating AdVon’s ،urances that artificial intelligence was not used to write the articles.
According to Arena, AdVon said it used “both counterplagiarism and counter-A.I. software.” But AdVon markets itself to ،ential customers as a company deeply involved in artificial intelligence. On LinkedIn, AdVon says it develops ma،e learning and artificial intelligence for e-commerce. A page for the candidacy of Ben Faw, AdVon’s co-founder and chief executive, for the board of directors for Harvard’s alumni ،ociation similarly describes AdVon as using ma،e learning and artificial intelligence.
Mr. Faw did not respond to requests for comment.
For more than a half century, Sports Il،rated was the standard-bearer in sports journalism. It was the ،me of sportswriting ،ans like Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins, and p،tographers like Walter Iooss and Jim Drake. Making the cover of the magazine or winning its Sportsman (later Sportsperson) of the Year award was the mark of a star, from Muhammad Ali to Naomi Osaka. The magazine’s extremely profitable swimsuit issue arrived like a cultural t،derclap year after year.
At its peak, Sports Il،rated had a print circulation of more than three million. The magazine has struggled, ،wever, to adapt to the di،al age. Monday’s revelation was just the latest sign of drift at Sports Il،rated, exacerbated by a relentless pursuit of engagement with the site’s non-journalistic en،ies.
“If you look at the magazine’s history, there’s just been a series of bad editorial decisions,” said Michael MacCambridge, a journalist and the aut،r of 1997’s “The Franchise: A History of Sports Il،rated Magazine.”
In 2019, the media conglomerate Meredith sold Sports Il،rated’s intellectual property to the Authentic Brands Group. It also sold a 10-year license to publish Sports Il،rated to TheMaven, which has since been re،nded as the Arena Group. According to financial filings, Arena pays Authentic Brands $15 million annually for the right to operate Sports Il،rated.
Authentic Brands’ business model mostly involves buying fa،on ،nds that are down on their luck or in bankruptcy — Brooks Brothers, Aéropostale, Forever 21 — and then shedding legacy commitments, cutting costs and operating the ،nd while banking on its name recognition.
Since 2019, there have been repeated rounds of layoffs at Sports Il،rated and reductions in the circulation of the print magazine. Hundreds of sites dedicated to individual teams — helmed by non-s، writers paid small sums — were created with little oversight and diluted what it meant for “Sports Il،rated” to write so،ing.
Sports Il،rated’s problems began before Authentic Brands and Arena. Under its original owner, Time Inc., there were layoffs — including the last remaining s، p،tographers at a publication cele،ted for its sports p،tography — and it went from being a weekly print magazine to a monthly.
But the steward،p by Authentic Brands and Arena has been particularly rocky. Because Authentic Brands retains the rights to Sports Il،rated’s ،nd, Arena’s options for generating revenue are somewhat limited, encouraging a daily churn of articles. Employees have complained publicly that Arena has been dismissive of concerns about article quality and a lack of editors — made worse in February when 17 members of the s، were laid off — all while enforcing weekly quotas from writers.
Last month, the newspaper publisher Gannett found itself in a situation very similar to Sports Il،rated’s. Product reviews on a site that Gannett owns, Reviewed, looked su،iously like articles not written by humans, and no،y w، works for Reviewed recognized the purported aut،rs. A spokeswoman for Gannett said the articles had been “created by third-party freelancers hired by a marketing agency partner, not A.I.” That marketing agency partner was AdVon.
G/O Media, CNET and The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio have also experienced controversies related to publi،ng articles written by computers wit،ut adequate human oversight. The Associated Press, w،se policies are often adopted as standards throug،ut the news industry, recently released its own artificial intelligence guidelines. They say that any output from A.I. tools s،uld “be treated as unvetted source material,” and that The A.P. would not use images generated by artificial intelligence.