Up to now, the world’s newsrooms have been populated by roughly two phenotypes. On the one hand, there have been the content people (many of whom would never call their journalism “content,” of course). These include seasoned reporters, investigators, or commentators who spend their time deep diving into subjects, research, analysis, and cultivating sources and usually don’t want to be bothered by “the rest.”
On the other hand, there has been “the rest.” These are the people who understand formats, channel management, metrics, editing, products, and audiences, and are ever on the lookout for new trends to help the content people’s journalism thrive and sell. But with the advent of generative AI, taking refuge in the old and surprisingly stable world of traditional journalism roles will not be an option any longer. Everyone in the newsroom has to understand how large language models work and how to use them — and then actually use them. This is why 2024 will be the year when media organizations will get serious about education and training.
“We have to bridge the digital divide in our newsrooms,” says Anne Lagercrantz, vice CEO of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. This requires educating and training all staff, even those who until now have shied away from observing what is new in the industry. While in the past it was perfectly acceptable for, say, an investigative reporter not to know the first thing about SEO, TikTok algorithms, or newsletter open rates, now everyone involved with content needs to be aware of the capabilities, deficiencies, and mechanics of large language models, reliable fact-checking tools, and the legal and ethical responsibilities that come with their use. Additionally, AI has all the potential to transform good researchers and reporters into outstanding ones, serving as powerful extensions to the human brain. Research from Harvard Business School suggested that consultants who extensively used AI finished their tasks about 25% faster and outperformed their peers by 40% in quality. It will be in the interest of everyone, individuals and their employers, that no one falls behind.
But making newsrooms fit for these new challenges will be demanding. First, training requires resources and time. But leadership might be reluctant to free up both or tempted to invest in flashy new tools instead. Many managers still fall short of understanding that digital transformation is more a cultural challenge than it is a tech challenge.
Second, training needs trainers who understand their stuff. These are rare finds at a time when AI is evolving as rapidly as it is over-hyped. You will see plenty of consultants out there, of course. But it will be hard to tell those who really know things from those who just pretend in order to get a share of the pie. Be wary when someone flashes something like the ten must-have tools in AI, warns Charlie Beckett, founder of the JournalismAI project at the London School of Economics. Third, training can be a futile exercise when it is not paired with doing. With AI in particular, the goal should be to implement a culture of experimentation, collaboration, and transparency rather than making it some mechanical exercise. Technological advances will come much faster than the most proficient trainer could ever foresee.
Establishing a learning culture around the newsroom should therefore be a worthwhile goal for 2024 and an investment that will pay off in other areas as well. Anyone who is infected with the spirit of testing and learning will likely stretch their minds in areas other than AI, from product development to climate journalism. So many of today’s challenges for newsrooms require constant adaptation, working with data, and building connections with audiences who are more demanding, volatile, and impatient than they used to be. It is important that every journalist embraces at least some responsibility for the impact of their journalism.
It is also time that those editorial innovators who tend to run into each other at the same conferences open their circles to include all of the newsroom. Some might discover that a few of their older colleagues of the content-creator-phenotype could teach them a thing or two as well — for example, how to properly use a telephone. In an age when artificial fabrication of text, voice, or image documents is predicted to evolve at a rapid pace, the comeback of old-style research methods and verification techniques might become a thing. But let’s leave this as a prediction for 2025.
This post was published in Harvard’s Nieman Lab’s Journalism Predictions 2024 series on 7th December 2023.