Microsoft won’t renew the contracts for dozens of news production contractors working at MSN and plans to use artificial intelligence to replace them, several people close to the situation confirmed on Friday.
The roughly 50 employees — contracted through staffing agencies Aquent, IFG and MAQ Consulting — were notified Wednesday that their services would no longer be needed beyond June 30.
“Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis,” a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement. “This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, re-deployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”
Full-time news producers employed by Microsoft will be retained by the company; they perform functions similar to those being let go. But all contracted news producer jobs have been eliminated.
Some employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, said MSN will use AI to replace the production work they’d been doing. That work includes using algorithms to identify trending news stories from dozens of publishing partners and to help optimize the content by rewriting headlines or adding better accompanying photographs or slide shows.
“It’s been semi-automated for a few months but now it’s full speed ahead,’’ one of the terminated contractors said. “It’s demoralizing to think machines can replace us but there you go.’’
Besides the production work, the contract employees also planned content, maintained the editorial calendars of partner news websites and assigned content to them.
MSN has undergone a number of changes since its launch as Microsoft Network in 1995. Once a web portal and default internet homepage for millions of personal computers, it offered original content and links to news, weather and sports.
In 2013, it rolled back original news content and began cutting employees. By 2014, it launched a redesigned version that partnered with other news sites — paying them to redistribute their content.
Today, the news service relies entirely on those partnerships with no original news content of its own. Curating stories rather than actually generating them made it easier for MSN to increasingly rely on an automated editing system, though several of the terminated employees expressed skepticism it will work as well with fewer human beings to monitor the technology.