To navigate the road ahead, news media companies must understand recent history and how it has changed the industry.
During the keynote presentation at the recent INMA South Asia News Media Summit, Damian Eales, past president and board member of INMA and former executive vice president/global jead of transformation at News Corp, addressed the organisational disruption and transformation of the past couple of decades and talked about what it means for the future.
“The digital technological revolution of the Internet has had enormous impacts on the news media industry and our culture,” he said. “[It] has fundamentally changed how information is distributed and consumed.”
The Internet changed journalism
Some of the most significant changes, of course, were the ways the Internet changed the distribution of information and eroded the barriers to entry into journalism. Expensive printing plants and distribution networks, along with TV newsrooms and cable networks, were no longer essential for producing and sharing information.
As Web 2.0 unfolded, “the Internet evolved from read-only to read and write,” ushering in the era of user-generated content (UGC) through blogs and social media platforms. Suddenly, the audience that once was only available to news organisations was finding new sources of information.
“Our PGC, or professionally generated content, was swamped by UGC,” Eales said. “Exponential increases in speed and bandwidth and the miniaturisation of microprocessors led to the ubiquitous adoption of smartphones and accelerated the transition from traditionally distributed journalism to digitally distributed journalism.”
Behind the scenes, AI was being used to study and predict readers’ behaviour for the sake of optimising paywalls, personalising content, and improving the effectiveness of digital advertising. At the same time, readers were changing where they focused their attention, consuming digital media instead of traditional media.
“The changes that have occurred to the digital attention and information economy have impacted the revenue model of journalism profoundly,” Eales said. “Most of all, the lifeblood of journalism — ad revenue — has been stripped from the business.”
While consumer revenue has picked up some of that loss through digital subscriptions, news media companies have been forced to look for new business models, such as creating digital listings.
“News media businesses have had to change dramatically as a result of this disruption, from manufacturing companies with significant physical plant and equipment and enormous distribution networks to digital product companies. From dominant advertising organisations to dominant digital subscription organisations; from single format journalism to many formats: print, audio, video, social,” he said. “Every part of their business has been retooled.”
As the business of journalism has changed, there have been considerable cultural consequences, both good and bad. On the plus side, Eales pointed out that customers have access to more news from more sources and can consume it in many ways, be it mobile, e-mail, social media, podcasts, video, or something else. And journalists have more information at their disposal to research an investigate stories.
On the flip side, there is less of a need for journalists and the number of newsroom staff in the U.S. alone has dropped by 62% since 2014. “Unfortunately, local journalism has borne the brunt of these impacts, as local publishers are the least capable of generating economies of scale,” he said.
The algorithm-driven environment has opened the door for more fake news and filters that reinforce individual perceptions rather than allowing differing opinions to be presented. That has caused opinions to “become more polarised and more shrill, more hardened, and more prominent.”
Where do we go from here?
Moving forward, news publishers won’t be able to escape the influence of AI, and they will also need to look at TikTok as a hub for reaching audiences, Eales said. The speed at which change occurs is increasing and he quoted the Reuters Institute 2023 Digital News Project Report to drive home that point: “The next few years will not be defined by how fast we adopt digital, but how we transform our digital content to meet rapidly changing audience expectations.”
AI can assist in content creation and help journalists become more efficient by helping with tasks such as synthesising the massive amounts of information available, helping transcribe video and audio recordings, translating foreign commentary accurately, and even helping them look for insights in data. It will also be able to help create some articles as well as images and graphics that would take hours for humans to produce.
“We might be the beneficiary of better journalism if we can harness the power of AI to enable more insightful and relevant journalism while maintaining a human curiosity in spirit,” he said. “And indeed, we should expect that quality journalism will be increasingly useful, serving news in formats that are conducive to customers’ context and how they want to consume it.”
However, there are negatives to AI that the industry must be aware of, beginning with the potential harm AI could inflict on journalism.
AI could freely steal from news media companies’ Web sites to create unattributed and anonymous stories, pulling readers’ attention away and diminishing the subscriber value propositions. The threat of fake news is alarming and deep fake videos will continue to improve, with AI making them “even more commonplace, smarter, and more tailored to the individual citizen.”
Using algorithms to tailor and produce content targeted to an individual will increase polarization between populations, Eales said.
“It seems like we have moved from the horse and cart to the automobile era and yet there are very few speed signs, few guardrails, no environmental restrictions for fuels, no seatbelts, or airbags,” he said. “We are running an experiment as a society and the news media has been one of the casualties.”
His biggest concern is that this will mean fewer journalists and less local news. To prevent that, he said it is vital for all publishers to take steps to protect their intellectual property and be fairly compensated for any work that is used on digital platforms.
“Recently, platforms have been sending signals that they’re listening and willing to compensate for our content,” he said. “As generative AI becomes mainstream, it is in our interests that we hold them true to their word.”