Large tech companies like Google and Facebook have significant power in the digital media landscapes of countries around the world, and it can sometimes be hard to imagine what online life would be like without them. This article I had the pleasure to be part of is a contribution from the participants on a panel organised by the Amsterdam-based AI, Media and Democracy Lab which discussed the question: What would happen if Facebook and Google left your country tomorrow? For one, the media industry would miss out on a significant chunk of funding for research, education, experience-exchange and innovation projects. But there’s more. Read our blog post here, published on 12th July 2021 by the London School of Economics.
Journalism is serious business. Just recently, a Greek investigative reporter was shot dead outside his home in a suburb of Athens. Even in Germany journalists are increasingly being physically attacked, which is why Reporters Beyond Borders downgraded the country’s state of press freedom from “good” to “satisfactory” in its latest report. Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, politicians and oligarchs are cornering independent media. And then German comedian Jan Böhmermann came along and landed a newsstand, TV and social media hit with a satirical magazine, “Freizeit Magazin Royale”, poking fun of German publishers. What got young people most worked up? Guess: that Böhmermann’s magazine was out of print after a few days.
One should still not deny young audiences a sense of seriousness too easily. Humor is a serious matter, and it doesn’t take attacks on caricaturists to get this. The trend of young people increasingly approaching the news through comedy has been showing for a while. A study in the journal Journalism highlighted this in the U.S. as early as 2007, a decade after the launch of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Since then, corresponding formats have been developed in many places. Modern newsrooms better get down to this soon: Mastering lighter formats is the key to getting the next generation excited about news. This is easier written than done though.
Satire is one of the journalistic genres that fails most often. What is satire, what is just bad taste and what is even inhumane? This was the subject of a heated debate in Germany just under a year ago, when a not-so-funny column by Hengameh Yaghoobifarah in the taz newspaper equated the police with garbage and therefore caused a lot of concern – right up to the Federal Minister of the Interior and the German Press Council. Even more than other forms of journalism, which can be mastered acceptably with craft, persistence and a lot of practice, satire requires a certain talent – in other words, humor. To make matters worse, this is even culturally coded.
Not everyone can and should laugh at everything. Humor exerts power, and therefore tends to work better from bottom up. There is a huge difference between rebelling against established power structures and cementing them by joking from above. For this reason, a show in which privileged presenters amuse themselves about political correctness is very prone to go wrong. This happened famously with the failed #allesdichtmachen campaign, in which well-known actors supposedly wanted to argue ironically for freedom of expression in the Covid 19 crisis. Too bad that parts of the public perceived this, at best, as whining from the designer kitchen.
American communications scholar Danna Young describes in her 2019 book “Irony and Outrage” that satire involves a certain basic liberal attitude that values freedom of thought and takes a playful approach to serious things in life. The counterpart to this in the right-wing political spectrum is the rise of rage talk shows, she argues.
The traditional media move between these poles. Their journalists work in the facts business and rarely in the humor field. Facts are unambiguous and clear by definition. Humor is ambiguous and lives through interpretation. Mixing things up is dangerous. Especially in social media, humor is often difficult to identify. Moreover, many reporters and commentators rarely feel like laughing (see above), cynicism excluded.
Still, humor works just fine with young audiences. Rule number one: It must not underestimate its addressees. The German (print) magazine Katapult is such a hit with the young generation, because it casually mixes factual depth and lightness. Subtitle: “Magazine for icecream, cartography and social science”, need we explain more? Young users prefer journalism that explains, is useful in their daily lives, and is fun, according to a study published by the Reuters Institute in Oxford.
The fun factor is still limited when consuming most established media. In the past, it was considered proof of belonging to the educated class, if one had to struggle properly while reading the newspaper. Today, status postures only trigger boredom. After all, the more easily digestible alternative is already waiting – on YouTube or Tik Tok. Now, it’s not about replacing news and analysis with satire. If you can’t bring it up to premium quality when it comes to humor, you better leave it. What everyone can work on, however, is tone. Many podcasts work so well because they come across as light and chatty.
Newspapers can still work on it. Some essays exude more enthusiasm of the writers about themselves and their clever sentences rather than mastery of language. To the audience, they only seem embarrassing. Young people in particular have good antennae for jokes being made at the expense of the weak. They don’t perceive it as funny, but as offensive and discriminatory. Lecturing is out, taking seriously is in. When in doubt, it’s okay to make fun of yourself. You don’t even have to be a comedian to do that.
This column appeared in German in the newsletter of the Digital Journalism Fellowship at Hamburg Media School on April 23, 2021. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited.
Newsrooms can fight “fake news” by identifying it, warning about it and correcting it. But they can also fight it with so much trustworthy, factual and well researched journalism that it drowns out the lies. For most of them it’s not an either/or decision, of course; they try to do both. The European Broadcasting Union has recently unveiled a project that caters to the latter: It wants to deliver class en masse and will do so by scaling content across countries and languages using automated translation.
The project promises quite a bit: starting in July, ten public broadcasters from Europe will feed in particularly good pieces on globally important topics such as Covid-19, climate change and migration, which will then be translated by artificial intelligence and made available across Europe. In an eight-month pilot phase, 14 institutions had shared more than 120,000 articles this way. This worked so well that the EU is now helping with a grant. So in the future, citizens could benefit not only from more reliable information, but also from more diversity, if things go well.
In fact, automated translations could revolutionize journalism. If you haven’t struggled with texts translated by software into other languages for a while because you found the results rather unsatisfactory, you might want to try it again. Artificial intelligence, which works on the principle of deep learning, now translates texts like this one into English within seconds. With a little editing, they read – this needs to be said – much better than what one used to get back from translators who knew a foreign language but not necessarily the journalistic form. The AI products are, in the truest sense of the word, frighteningly good.
Admittedly, robots work reliably in a few languages only, but they are learning as we read. And the result will shape journalism – but in different directions. On the one hand, the tools open up new possibilities for publishers. Whereas until now only newsrooms from English-speaking countries were able to offer their journalism worldwide, in the future everyone will be able to do so for whom it makes sense commercially or qua mission. Not every media company will be able to turn itself into a New York Times or a Guardian, but the options for Europe-wide news portals are growing rapidly. At the start-up Forum.eu, for example, AI now handles 60 percent of the total translation work, according to co-founder Paul Ostwald’s estimate. The platfom makes quality journalism from different countries accessible all over Europe.
Editors could also reach people with other native languages more easily in their own countries via automated translation, for example hard to connect with migrant communities. And international research should become much easier if reporters have better access to original documents this way. The whole thing does not only work for written but also for spoken material (which stillmakes for funny subtitles on TV).
However, newsrooms have already realized that there is not only a huge potential for expansion, but also for savings. Reuters news agency has long been redeploying resources, for example from its German-language service to parts of the world where citizens are in greater need for journalistic scrutiny. And of course this makes sense: Instead of sending a German- and an English-speaking colleague to the same press conference in Berlin, an additional colleague in, for example, the Philippines can create real added value.
However, it is precisely at this point that things become critical. After all, language is only ever a packaging for content that arises in the context of a culture. The exact same fact can read completely differently depending on who is describing it. When, for example, star conductor Simon Rattle recently announced that he would be joining the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor in 2023, German culture reporters were thrilled. Reading the British Guardian on the same day, one learned that Rattle had extended his contract with the London Symphony Orchestra until 2022, oh, and at some point he would go to Munich. One event, two reporters, two worlds, a translation would not have helped in this case.
A translation tool will not replace a foreign correspondent – but it will make his or her work easier. This is bad news for all those fixers and local journalists around the globe who make sure that journalists get the right information, contacts and access without which they would often be lost on foreign territory. If they are not needed as translators any longer, they might soon be out of their jobs. Already, only a few newsrooms can afford a network of reporters far from home. Easier access to all the world’s languages is likely to accelerate this development – but it has not caused it.
As with many things that new technology offers, there is one temptation, and it has to be resisted: That you have to do what you can do. Translating content via AI just because it works is not a strategy. What audience do you want to reach with what content, and what do you want it to achieve? Do you have a mission, a business model, or just fun with it? There they are again, these questions that no AI can answer. Meanwhile, beware: AI is increasingly used to translate “fake news” as well.
This column was published on 4th February 2021 with Hamburg Media School in German, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and edited.
Even on the European side of the Atlantic, Marty Baron may be a household name to some outside the journalistic microcosm. The reason is “Spotlight.” In the movie, which won an Oscar in 2015, a young, new editor-in-chief drives an investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper to top performance. The reporters finally succeed in uncovering a huge abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The editor-in-chief’s real name is Martin Baron, and the actor Liev Schreiber, who played him, actually looked a lot like him in the film. By that time, however, Baron had already buzzed off to the Washington Post (WaPo), where he became editor-in-chief in 2013, shortly before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper. There, @PostBaron, as he calls himself on Twitter, has now had enough. 66 years old, he announced he would be leaving his post at the end of February 2021.
In many a newsroom, reporters might have wrangled over who gets to pay tribute to Baron on his farewell. Of course, lots of journos are in awe of such a seasoned colleague, who during his time as editor-in-chief expanded the editorial team from 500 to 1,000 people, won ten Pulitzer Prizes with them and still managed to do a first-class job with digital transformation. “Democracy dies in darkness” – the WaPo’s claim will hardly be missing from any article. And if you like it funnier, you can integrate the expression “swashbuckling” into your English vocabulary. Jeff Bezos used it to say goodbye to his business partner: “You are swashbuckling and careful, you are disciplined and empathetic.” Never mind Baron could also be quite exhausting, Bezos admitted.
You can say a lot about this Marty, who was well aware of his importance. However, he was not so aware that he did not repeatedly tell young and experienced journalists about his work, as he regularly did at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where he sits on the advisory board. He was happy to do so, also in the hope that a few of his messages would find their way back across the Atlantic. Only when he said something publicly did his newsroom take it from him that he was serious, he once said. He was obviously serious about one thing, because he repeated it, and it stuck: “I only hire optimists.” A flair for those colleagues* who push things forward with tenacity and a belief in success, whether investigative research or product development, may have been part of his recipe for success in digital transformation (the other’s first name was Jeff).
As a pragmatic, confident optimist, one can only agree. How nice it is, even as a boss, to share everyday life and offices with colleagues who take a deep breath at every minor and major crisis and then assure you with a desperate yet hopeful smile: “We’ll get it right.” How do you appreciate them, the ones who keep experimenting, digging in, doing the math and ultimately turning the corner with the message, “It’ll work out.”
In the media industry in general though optimism as a concept is not very popular. On the one hand, this is due to the less than encouraging balance sheets and the crumbling business models. On the other hand, it also reflects the self-image of a profession that often succumbs to the reflex of attaching the word crisis to every problem, thus making it seem a little more insoluble – think of the Corona crisis, the refugee crisis, the climate crisis, the vaccine crisis and, yes, the media crisis. Optimism in this reading is often misunderstood as whitewashing. Journalists, after all, are supposed to be critical and uncover messes. To bathe the world in optimism, that’s what PR is supposed to do. For this reason, journalism that calls itself constructive or solution-oriented sometimes has a hard time, at least communication-wise.
The audience, however, is increasingly annoyed by this. More than a third of users find journalism too negative and therefore switch off, as can be read in the Digital News Report year after year. Not necessarily because they no longer want to hear bad news, but because many perceive the world around them very differently – at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on. They often have quite positive experiences with colleagues, friends, neighbors, even complete strangers in the supermarket or at the train station. Therefore they feel that they can achieve something if they get together and tackle problems rather than going into hiding. Challenges have to be overcome, nothing helps.
And that is indeed the core of optimism: not a rosy view of the world, a denial of the facts, a euphoria-soaked jumping on every trend. But the confidence that with proper use of brain cells, diligence and cooperation, one will somehow make progress on the path to a better future, no matter how far away the goal may be. Things don’t always turn out well for everyone; many a generation carries burdens that are almost impossible to shoulder. But anyone who follows Max Roser’s long-term data series in Ourworldindata.org knows that progress is reality, not fiction.
Now it would be wrong to claim that progress is built by optimists alone. In every team there must be doubters who see details and nuances, point out risks and dangers and do not let themselves be silenced by bosses who divide the world into “trouble shooters and trouble makers”. Many a misfortune could have been prevented, many a danger averted, if the worriers had been listened to in good time. But the power is in optimism, the belief that something good can come of it if only worries and doubts are taken seriously enough.
They certainly weighed on Marty Baron, the great investigative journalist, when he met with Jeff Bezos eight years ago to talk about the future of the WaPo. Would the newsroom be able to remain independent under the eye of a man for whom the paper seemed more toy than vocation, and whose corporate empire earned far fewer stars in the humanity department than in the “customer obsession” category? In any case, the editor-in-chief was happy with the owner, he emphasized this one time after another. Possibly Marty Baron would have even hired himself.
This post appeared for the Digital Journalism Fellowship newsletter on January 28 on the Hamburg Media School blog. It was translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited by the author.
Middle management in companies more often than not suffers from its infamous reputation. They are branded as rule-abiding busy bees, nitpickers who stick to processes just as much as they stick to their own chairs, managers, definitely not leaders. If they were, they would have long been promoted to the top – or so it is taught in many a business school. Former Siemens CEO Peter Löscher once spoke of a “clay layer,” the term even survived his own career in the company. A word that is like a slap in the face of all those tireless getting-things-doners who not only keep the company running on a daily basis, but also strive for constant improvement and overhaul, whether there is a crisis or not.
In the media industry, bosses are apparently no longer so sure about that clay layer. In the new “Journalism, media and technology trends and predictions” report by Nic Newman, which the Reuters Institute in Oxford publishes regularly at the beginning of the year, top managers were at least refreshingly self-critical about their own capacity to generate top ideas. Only about one in four (26 percent) of the 234 executives surveyed from 43 countries said they were convinced that top management generates the best ideas. The problem, as Nic Newman frames it: Innovation might not come from the top, “but companies are still run that way”. The report is not representative, but it is a must-read in the industry precisely because the respondents tend to be leaders who are particularly concerned about progress.
But where do they see innovation coming from? Nearly three-quarters revealed that data and audience research were most likely to give them a leg up, 68 percent bet on mixed teams from different areas, and still just under one in two admitted to borrowing the best strategies from other media companies. Okay, according to the survey, editors-in-chief and media managers trusted middle management as such even less (17 percent) than they trusted themselves. But who meets in the mixed teams, who evaluates audience data and derives strategies from it, who attends the relevant industry meetings, reads up on foreign material and then reports to the C-level? That’s right, in the very most common case, it’s the mid-level.
It is often those who are not celebrated as heroes in any industry publication and who neither management literature nor research has an eye on. They are the ones who are closest to the difficulties – and often therefore to the solutions. But they are also the ones for whom demands from employees and customers alike pile up into a sandwich of expectations. They are expected to be both operationally reliable and to think strategically and manage change. And if something goes wrong, it’s up to them to pick up the pieces and rebuild them into something else – in management-speak this is coined as “celebrating failure.
This layer of dedicated and loyal drivers of innovation, many of whom are at an age and in situations where family work demands additional work from them, is – no surprise – most at risk of burnout. Lucy Küng, who researches cultural change in media companies that go digital, has revealed this in countless interviews, including in her latest book: “Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture and Talent to Really Go Digital.” This results in a huge brain and talent drain, she emphasizes again and again.
Yet many managers consider the mid level worthy of support only as long as they themselves are part of it. As soon as they have made it into top positions, they recoin themselves as visionaries. Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD Business School, calls this “leaderism.” Instead of valuing reliable and constructive management, which is so necessary especially in times of crisis, he says, people celebrate visionaries whose ideas all too often go down with them. The glorification of leadership on the one hand and the devaluation of management qualities on the other is a dangerous pair of opposites that is still taught, but does more harm than good, especially in crises, he eloquently describes in the essay: “Why leadership isn’t a miracle cure for the Covid-19 crisis (and what can really help).” It is time to put less hope in leadership and more humanity into management, Petriglieri said. Judging by the “Trends and Predictions” report, many media managers already understand this. Humility can be the first step toward innovation.
This text was first published in German with Hamburg Media School Blog on 15th January 2021, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator and edited.
When US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer recently, the headline race was on once again. Instead of pausing for a moment to honor a great personality for her leadership and stamina in the quest for justice, most of the news media didn’t miss a beat. Who would President Donald Trump nominate as her successor, and how would that reshape American society? Reporting instantly took second place to speculation and opinion, drowning out the announcement of the 87-year-old’s death in a sea of noise.
The predominant frame for interpreting today’s world is winning and losing, and the media has bought right into it. Being faster, smarter, delivering yet another interpretation, speculation and judgement – a certain breathlessness has always been inherent in journalism. But in pre-digital times, news media only competed against each other. The difference now is that they are up against everything an average smartphone holds. The battle for attention shapes their very existence. And readers are responding by leaving in droves. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, one in three people now regularly avoids the news. A rising share of audiences find journalism too overwhelming, too negative, too opinionated with too little relevance for their daily lives. And they believe it can’t always be trusted.
This is bad news – for democracy. In a world of noise, propaganda and misinformation, leadership by independent media that provide the facts is needed more than ever. Studies show that voting turnout is higher, more people run for office and public money is spent more responsibly where local news media keep citizens informed and hold institutions to account. But business models are broken. Platform monopolies have gobbled up advertising money and optimize for attention; too often the media has followed suit.
Now there is no way that media companies can outsmart Google, Facebook and the like. News media have to go where their audiences are. But when opinion is everywhere, quality information becomes a critically important currency. Covid-19 has demonstrated that people crave trustworthy journalism. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in the first weeks of the pandemic more people relied on major news organizations than on government agencies or even their own friends and family for information. This is a huge responsibility, but what to do with it?
First of all, listening to audiences is vital. Many journalists still spend more energy on beating the competition than attempting to find out what their audiences need. Among these are more explanation, more solutions, a clear distinction between facts and opinion, less noise, clickbait and talking down to people. Instead of indulging in thumbs-up, thumbs-down journalism, more constructive reporting is needed.
The news media cannot go it alone, though. The political sphere needs to secure press freedom; supporting the economic viability of the industry is part of it. And the platform companies that shape today’s communication infrastructure have to take responsibility too. Their algorithms have to optimize for quality content.
Yet blaming Silicon Valley for everything that is going wrong has been the easy way out for too long. A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society confirmed what other research has already pointed out: the mass media are much more responsible for spreading misinformation – for the most part thought up by political leaders – than social media is. This is bad news and good news at the same time. Bad news, because journalism has not lived up to its potential. Good news, because the media still has plenty of agenda-setting power. Instead of blaming platform companies or foreign meddling for spreading “fake news”, the news media and its leaders should confidently reassert their historic mission to lead through a world of information confusion: that is, to deliver the facts, be transparent about their quest and stimulate serious public conversation. The health of our societies depends on it.
Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades, and the lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. The most likely reason is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.
MUNICH – When a local radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina started a podcasting competition in its community, it was prepared for many contingencies, except one: that the response would overwhelm the station’s server. The initiative was aimed at increasing on-air diversity, and tens of thousands of people wanted in. Groups and individuals from all walks of life submitted more than 370 ideas for podcasts, and 33,000 listeners logged on to vote for them. What started as a one-time experiment will now be a regular feature.
Journalism has always suffered from a lack of diversity. Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades. And while editors around the world have increasingly recognized that this is a problem, too little has been done to address it.
One reason, ironically, is a preoccupation with digital change. “There has been so much focus on digital transformation in recent years, the question of diversity has had to stand aside,” explains Olle Zachrison of the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, in a study comparing diversity efforts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany. And yet, as the newsroom in Charlotte discovered, diversity is not just an added bonus; it is at the very core of audience engagement today.
In explaining the business ethos of the digital age, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it is all about “customer obsession as opposed to competitor obsession.” For the media, then, the guiding principle should be “audience first.” And that means using data to understand and cater better to it.
Not long ago, editorial choices were guided mostly by gut feelings and assumptions, whereas now they are often informed by analytical metrics and revealed truths about audience behavior. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable. Editors can no longer fool themselves about their journalism’s real-world impact. They now know that even the best stories tend to reach just a fraction of their hoped-for audience.
Complicating matters further, newsrooms have discovered that demand can peak at times when they have no new offerings, or when what they’re serving is not what consumers are seeking. In surveys like the Digital News Report, respondents often complain that the media offer too much negativity and volume, and too little explanation and relevant coverage.
Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. Newspapers were money-printing machines – the advertising dollars poured in regardless of what would now be called “content.” Likewise, public-service media faced almost no competition. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.
Many newsrooms were entirely unprepared for this new reality. They don’t even know who their potential new customers are, let alone how to reach them and win their trust. The problem is not just that newsroom homogeneity results in an incomplete view of the world and of the reading/listening public. It is that even when “outsiders” do land a job in this kind of environment, they tend to adapt to the dominant culture rather than challenge it. As a result, newsrooms remain ill equipped to reach out to new audiences.
The lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. Back in the heyday of local news, newsrooms were no less white or male, but being a journalist at least didn’t require a university degree – only a willingness to dive in and chase leads. Yet as the industry became concentrated more in big cities and employment prospects elsewhere diminished, education became yet another entry barrier. While the better-educated candidates moved up to higher-profile jobs, many others left the profession altogether.
In keeping with the industrial society of the time, the occupational model that followed from these changes was hierarchical. As with teachers and their pupils, preachers and their congregations, and experts and the lay public, education conferred status and authority upon journalists. The public was a passive recipient of information, not an engaged participant in a broader conversation.
Clinging to this hierarchical structure is now a recipe for failure. The digital world of information is one of choice and abundance, but also of considerable confusion about what is true and false. Trust is a news organization’s most valuable asset, and the task for journalists is both to challenge and inspire their audience, and to invite conversations among them.
That can’t happen unless journalism represents the society in which it is operating. Unfortunately, a recent global survey of media leaders finds that while editors see progress toward gender diversity, much more must be done to achieve racial and political diversity, as well as a balance between “urban” and “rural” backgrounds. The most likely reason for this failure is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.
Fortunately, the digital transformation represents an opportunity. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York explains, industry leaders should “Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media.” All news organizations should take Jarvis’s advice – and not just because it is the right thing to do. Their own survival depends on it.
This commentary was published in ten languages by Project Syndicate on June 25, 2020
These days it always raises a bit of suspicion, when companies advertise their products naming them something “Corona”. There is no crisis without crisis winners after all, and not everyone deserves to win. Do editors really need “Corona Watch”, for example? The newsdesk tool automatically evaluates important sources on the crisis situation and alerts editors and reporters via a Slack Channel. Obviously it doesn’t do so autonomously. Beforehand, the newsroom’s task is to determine sources and selection criteria.
Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet actually regards the tool as a win. Managing Editor Michael Poromaa says, it not only supports his team’s work, but also strengthens their position in the competition with other media: “Before, we were often at most the second to report new cases, now we are the first.” The alternative to using Corona Watch would be for the newsroom to constantly refresh the 21 regional health authority websites, Poromaa says.
Corona Watch was developed by Swedish company United Robots, which offers various automated solutions for newsrooms. Aftonbladet came up with the idea and it was implemented within a day, says Cecilia Campbell. Campbell works for United Robots, previously she co-managed the Reader Revenue group within World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Whereas some journalists fear that robot journalism might cost them their jobs, many Scandinavian publishers are ready to embrace it. “News publishers want their journalists to do qualified research-based journalism,” says Campbell, who is Swedish. A variety of simple tasks, however, can be automated.
Many publishers are even convinced that automation can help the industry survive. Stefan Åberg, for example, leads a team of just two dozen journalists at the Swedish media company VK Media. It was impossible to meet all reader expectations with what this team alone could produce, he said at a WAN-IFRA conference in 2019. The solution: “We are building an army of robots.” He reported to have implemented bots for everything: weather, traffic, property sales, sports matches. Since the editorial team had begun using automation extensively, the number of digital subscribers had increased by 70 percent.
Many editorial offices are already using artificial intelligence. So far, it has played the largest role in marketing. Bots automatically offer subscriptions to readers or provide them with personalized content, for example. Some say they listen to the audience better than journalists because they can evaluate data quickly. There are even newsrooms that trust artificial intelligence more than their editors when it comes to news judgement, because at times it seems to be easier to unbias software than to unbias people. Canadian Globe and Mail, for example, use bots when feeding its homepage to ensure that content relating to minority groups is published on a daily basis. In many newsrooms automation is widely used for data journalism projects and fact checking. Others, like British Financial Times or Swedish Dagens Nyheter, use gender bots to check the gender ratio of quoted sources or pictures.
Significantly fewer media companies delegate text writing to robots. The major news agencies were early adopters, since they have to be both fast and broad. This requires lots of routine work. American AP was among the first to have robots report on quarterly company results. Where reporters used to cover a few hundred companies per quarter, robots now manage a few thousand. The Washington Post has massively expanded its election reporting with the help of AI tools.
Will newsrooms face staff cuts? It says a lot about the state of the industry that not even the unions condemn robot journalism as the devil’s stuff. Job cuts and savings programs have been around for years, the advertising crisis following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has sped up the decline of resources. Now it’s about saving what can be saved. The road forward for newsrooms is to do both: serving their customers with exclusive stories researched by reporters on the one hand, and provide them with popular basic reporting on the other. This includes locally adapted weather and traffic news, which no one needs years of journalism training to create. Some of these even generate subscriptions: automatically generated reports on property prices seem to top that particular list.
The sooner newsrooms consider the opportunities of AI and robot journalism, the better. Because editors and newsroom managers who know their way around technology are less likely to get sold on solutions that no one needs. After all, it’s about improving their particular brand of journalism and serving the public better. Flooding readers with ever more stuff doesn’t do the job. Before “hiring” the robots, it is helpful to think about the dos and don’ts. Former AP journalist and advisor Tom Kent has created an ethics checklist for that purpose. Note: AI journalism can only be as good as the data with which it is fed.
The printed newspaper has been on life-support for a while, but chances are it might not survive the corona crisis. Now it is critical that the journalism doesn’t get dragged down with it – at a time when it is essential for survival.
Clayton Christensen did not live to see the corona crisis. The professor of Harvard Business School who developed the famous concept of disruptive innovation died of cancer this year in January. In his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” he dealt with the inherent reluctance of highly successful companies to reinvent their business models when confronted with ground-breaking new technologies. In an article called „Breaking News“ he addressed the media industry in particular. This was in 2012.
Eight years later the Covid-19 pandemic throws the world economy into a disruption of unheard proportions. It fosters technological adaptation and forces innovation at rapid speed. Only in retrospect will we learn which ones of these will prove to be truly innovative – as in good for society. But the world of business and work will never be the same again.
What we see in the media industry might not differ too much from others: Companies that have already embraced technological change and made it part of their culture are better off now. In these days of uncertainty when people are craving news and information like never before, they engage readers through their digital channels and products and gain subscribers in unprecedented proportions. Even the ones who have taken their paywalls down for coronavirus coverage attract loyal readers who are willing to pay for quality journalism.
The others, who have been rather cautious in marketing digital subscriptions while guarding their revenues from printed newspapers like a treasure are now at the tail end. They face the innovator’s dilemma as described by Christensen, their fight for survival will be particularly fierce. Because the breakdown of the advertising market combined with looming production challenges mean that the remaining days of print will be counted down much faster now than ever before.
In some places, the countdown is over already. British JPI media group recently announced to stop print production for twelve titles. A city like Milton Keynes with more than 200 000 inhabitants will then have no newspaper any longer. In case of the coronavirus, this situation is particularly tricky, because the most vulnerable part of the population is at the same time the digitally most underserved and therefore print dependent: the elderly.
In the US, bets are already on about who will be running out of the cash needed to fuel the printing presses. Many local newspapers are directly or indirectly owned by investment funds who tend to get rather impatient with financial underperformance. The number of news deserts that don’t have any local journalism to offer will grow once more.
The thought of reducing the number of weekdays when print newspapers are produced is not new. Many publishers have been thinking about this for quite some time. Some acted on it years ago, not always with fortune. When the New Orleans Times Picayune went from a seven-day-per-week printing schedule to a mere three days in 2012, it marked the beginning of the end for the once proud newspaper that in its golden days two thirds of all households had subscribed to. Portuguese Diario de Noticias from Lisbon went from seven daily editions to just one weekend edition in 2018. Before Corona hit, editor-in-chief Catarina Carvalho had her doubts whether this had been the right strategic move, now she is glad. It may be Diario’s ticket to survival. Only recently, the Tampa Bay Press announced it would cut down printing to the Wednesday and Sunday edition.
This might also be needed as an emergency response. Not only has the corona crisis slashed advertising volume in an already ailing market. But many publishers fear that production and distribution problems could materialise, once illness and restrictions hit personnel and supply chains. And then there is the shortage of cash. As Maria Ressa, the world-famous, award-winning journalist and founder of the digital news platform Rappler.com recently put it in a call: “We have to flatten the curve of expenses.” Apart from chasing facts and protecting staff, making sure the money lasts is a priority now.
For some publishers, it’s not exaggerated to compare the situation with the ones of doctors in emergency rooms or intensive care units: They would love to keep all the patients alive but have to focus on those with the best chances for survival. The crisis confronts newspapers with life-or-death decisions, media analyst Ken Doctor wrote in a rather gloomy piece for Nieman Lab. First question on the list publishers currently considered in his words: “Will we keep seven days of print publishing?” Buzzfeed reporter Craig Silverman was even more outspoken days before: „The Corona Virus is a Media Extinction Event“, he wrote.
In some markets like Germany the situation looks less strained – at least to the outside world. To the contrary: readers resort to traditional news media in droves when craving the latest information. Those who have to stay home rediscover the ritual of reading print. Some newsrooms even report rising numbers of print subscriptions. But quietly publishers have already reduced page volume and variations in local editions. This is not only because of advertising Armageddon. Apart from corona content that everyone is devouring, there is much less material to fill the pages. Sports competitions and all kinds of culture and business events have been canceled, editors are busy with crisis management, and research is getting difficult, since reporters are advised to keep their risk of exposure to a minimum to not endanger themselves and their families.
In some European media companies, staff is on reduced work schedules – a common government policy to help companies with cost reduction in crisis situations. Even Germany’s most famous political magazine Der Spiegel, known for its generous salaries and working conditions, is apparently considering such a move.
And once cuts made, reductions are there to stay. It is a hardly guarded secret that readers who cancel print subscriptions do so more often because they feel overwhelmed by too much stuff rather than for receiving too little in volume. In an age of information over-abundance, less is often more. Additionally, publishers will go through great length in the weeks to come to digitally activate their print subscribers, just in case. And once readers are online, they will get used to it. Building habit is the recipe for success in any subscription venture, online or offline. “People are going to spend a lot of time online for the foreseeable future. And so far, we have few examples of people returning to offline media once they have embraced online ones”, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford wrote analysing the situation for the industry.
In many countries, print newspapers won’t disappear from breakfast tables right away. But a sizeable number of publishers will soon count their losses and reduce publishing to just one edition on the weekend. This is when even younger audiences enjoy a slower pace of life, those who haven’t been able to understand the concept of space consuming print editions for some time.
The step from one down to zero will be a short one then. Some people might not even notice in the turbulence of an economic crisis that is likely to stay with us for some time. That is, as long as the journalism survives.
This is what everyone – publishers, governments, platform companies, foundations and funders – should now focus their efforts on. For newsrooms, it is essential to speed up digital transformation and focus on audiences’ needs, the coronavirus-crisis is an excellent opportunity for this. Now quality media are indispensable resources for citizens to inform their daily decisions in times of uncertainty. Platform companies need to keep on their industry support, they have to make sure that it is guided by industry and citizen needs. The fight against misinformation is particularly critical when lives are at stake.
Emergency funding will be necessary, presumably everywhere.The Danish parliament for example in early April passed a 25 million Euro relief package for the media industry that will compensate for revenues lost through the advertising crisis. Other countries like Austria will follow suit. Journalists themselves will need to keep an eye on whether the distribution of such support will be fair and benefit independent quality journalism. It is well known that many governments use crisis situations as an opportunity to play favourites and get rid of critical voices.
Being ahead in the digital game used to be a matter of competition. Now rapid and sustainable digital transformation has become a matter of survival. Democracy can live without print. It cannot persevere without strong and independent journalism.
Copyright: Alexandra Borchardt 2020
Europe’s newsrooms are still predominantly white and middle class, though societies are changing at rapid speed. How to better reflect all members of the increasingly diverse European societies within Europe’s Media and public sphere is crucial. Additionally, diversity is a business case. In digital transformation it is essential to gain access to new audiences. For public service media in particular this is not only a mission b’ut also a requirement.
As part of the European Federation of Journalists’ project ‘Managing change in media’, supported by the European Commission, I have drafted ten recommendations for newsrooms on how to promote diversity and enable them to identify talent and reflect the society they are reporting about. You can read them here: Download the report