Update, Thursday September 22nd, 4:26AM ET: It turns out The Bulwark’s editor, Jonathan V. Last, stated in a subscribers-only newsletter on August 17th that he’d started “playing around” with AI art generator Midjourney and that he hoped the site’s art director Hannah Yoest “has the chance to play around with it for us.” Last did not respond to The Verge’s request for comment but, in another subscribers-only newsletter on September 21st, explained that no-one employed by the site internally or on a freelance basis lost work because of publication’s use of the AI model. The original story follows below.
The Bulwark, a US political news and analysis site, has quietly started using AI to help illustrate its articles. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a publication use machine learning art generators in this way, but it is, to this reporter’s knowledge, the first time said publication has not made a whole song and dance about it — which is significant news.
In the past, magazines like The Economist have turned their AI-generated covers into cover stories, or writers have accidentally become stories through their use of AI illustrations. But, as far as we can see, The Bulwark hasn’t even publicized this change. Instead, it’s just started doing it — a sign of a maturing technology. The news was spotted by Wagner James Au on his blog and featured in Charles Arthur’s newsletter, The Overspill, where we saw it.
Provenance aside, it’s interesting to see how The Bulwark is actually deploying this technology. The publication is using an AI image generator named Midjourney, which is known for its appealing, aesthetic style that mimics contemporary digital illustration. The publication is not using raw AI images, however, but combining Midjourney’s output with stock photos.
In the screenshot below, for example, there’s a stock image of King Charles III overlaid over an AI-generated UK flag (or something approximating it). This means there’s a human involved in creating these pictures, but it’s presumably a less taxing way to make these attractive and unique illustrations than it is to draw something from scratch.
One big question here is, did someone lose work because of this? We’ve reached out to The Bulwark for details, but at the time of writing, it has not yet gotten back to us. Maybe the site was using third-party illustrators before this and AI really has taken work away from them. Or maybe the site’s art budget was already cut and their in-house illustrators just decided to use AI to spruce up their images rather than use plain stock photos? But even then, some of these images don’t use stock photos at all, which, in a small way, undermines that market.
In one sense, these details matter very much, but in another... they don’t. What’s clear is that AI image generators are becoming part of the art ecosystem — in this case, functioning as a halfway-house between stock imagery and original illustrations, balancing lower costs in terms of time and money spent, but producing images that are more unique than stock.
When we look at the entire art market, it seems inevitable that the rise of tools like these will mean illustrators lose out on some work, at least. The big unknown, though, is how the market as a whole adapts in the future.