News media is at a transformative point right now. Generative AI is top-of-mind for every publisher while the ongoing quest to find the right balance of subscriptions and advertising revenue continues.
During last week’s INMA World Congress of News Media, Jodie Hopperton, INMA’s Product Initiative lead, moderated a panel of news media executives from around the world. They discussed the distinction between journalism and content, how journalists will always play a role in maintaining the reader’s trust, and the best way to build relationships with Gen Z.
Jodie Hopperton: When I e-mailed you all in advance to find out your top top three concerns, you all came back to me with two letters: AI. So let’s start there. What are the opportunities and threats with generative AI?
Sinead Boucher, CEO of Stuff in New Zealand: There are so many potential positives — particularly in efficiency, in terms of automation, and enhancing the work of the newsroom. But it’s going to take a lot of focus and effort to ensure things go right. Right now we’ve got the kind of implementations many others have. For instance, using AI to start layouts and do summaries.
Gert Ysebaert, CEO of Mediahuis Group in Belgium: We want to embrace it and use all the potential for efficiency, but we also realise that the landscape will change drastically, so we also need to just mitigate risk.
The key is to augment journalism — not replace it — and to be transparent to readers when using it for things like summaries. It’s about trust and keeping the human in the loop. The editor-in-chief is still the one who is responsible for what is published.
One thing we did at Mediahuis is to make a framework for our newsroom for using AI in an ethical way. We developed a document with seven simple principles to act as a manual. Our editors-in-chief like it a lot. They made it themselves and they really needed it. So much os coming at us so quickly. We need to make priorities and we need to do it in a controlled way.
Boucher: Yes, we would be deluding ourselves if we don’t realise it will be a hugely disruptive force. Right now, I’m looking at how we reacted slowly and with complacency to social and to search and thinking about lessons that can be learned. A lot of us are still grappling with the legacy of those disruptive changes in terms of our relationships with Big Tech companies and with regulations and payments. And now we are at another hugely disruptive moment. We need to focus on what we need to protect and how are we going to compete.
Hopperton: That leads me to think about how as the social/mobile revolution played out, India was one of the first countries that was truly mobile-first. Praveen, are you feeling that there might be the same opportunity with generative AI right now?
Praveen Someshwar, managing director and CEO of HT Media Group in India: In India, this brings a massive opportunity. But the watch-out is that our job is still to get through to our audiences in the best possible manner and to amplify our content so they can get to the truth. Generative AI is going to change the way content gets amplified and it’s going to change the way audiences consume it. So it’s both an opportunity and a threat.
The threat is that it is getting trained from the content we and others create, and we creators may not be rewarded in a balanced manner. If publishers and Big Tech can work together, there is a massive opportunity for both. But Big Tech has to share the spoils.
Ysebaert: The real opportunity for us is that we’re not in the content business. We’re in the journalism biz. In a world where there will be so much content made by AI, people will look for what the human view is, for the human touch, and I think they will continue to value that.
Hopperton: Do you think that consumers differentiate journalism from content? You’ve made that very clear distinction, and that actually leads to thinking about revenue streams and the balance between advertising and subscriptions. If consumers don't see that difference — in what we're asking for them to pay for us versus what they see on other content platforms. So how are you trying to differentiate that in the consumer’s mind?
Ysebaert: We can differentiate ourselves with trust. People will be willing to pay if they are engaged and if they trust us. But if people don’t understand journalism well enough, we have to explain better. If we want to make a difference, we have to explain what we are doing.
Someshwar: I think Gert has summarised it nicely — the anchor is trust. And there are really two ways to think of content, and I do use the word instead of journalism. Content can be monetised by either subscriptions or advertising. When people have trust in you at the highest level, they are happy to pay for a subscription. Without trust, you have to lean more on advertising. As trust comes down, you need advertising more.
Hopperton: But trust in the media and in government is at an all-time low, particularly in the U.S. And some young people see journalists as the old guard and influencers as the new generation. How do we distinguish ourselves and strike the right balance?
Boucher: Essentially we do have to be trustworthy, but the audience research shows that the things that we probably equate with trust aren’t necessarily what the consumer associates with trust. We think about things like transparency of sources, but when you survey consumers, they say they trust platforms that “respect my time.” So we also need to understand their needs to gain their trust.
Hopperton: Should there be some kind of certification for journalists to distinguish them from influencers – something like a Hippocratic oath? Would that help with trust?
Ysebaert: I’m not sure about an external certification or standard, but I do think, readers — especially the younger generations expect — much more transparency. And I think that can come from publishers being clear about our standards and stating our key principles and being transparent about how we organise ourselves internally. Let's start by doing that.
Frederic Kachar, CEO of Infoglobo in Brazil: The idea of certifying journalists was the subject of a big discussion in Brazil, and we, as a group, were against this. Our flagship publication is about to complete 98 years of existence, and we built our brand and our audience at a time when a certification to work in a newsroom was actually required in Brazil. But now we think that having a diversity of authors is what should define us rather than a certification.
If you have everyone from different perspectives and levels of society— including doctors and scientists — sharing the same values and standards, then that’s what gives you trust and good journalism.
Hopperton: How do you organise C-suite to optimise how you generate revenue?
Kachar: The first thing the digital revolution required was to explode the silos, and we now have a C-suite that works together with everyone on a shared mission. Without a shared mission, we won’t succeed.
Catherine So, CEO of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong: I agree. Everyone needs to be on board with the mission, and to us, we have two roles: to be the newspaper of record of Hong Kong and to lead the conversation on China.
You also need to have mutual respect. The business side doesn’t always work seamlessly with editorial. But if you hire people who respect each other you will get a team that works together seamlessly.
But back to the role of trust in revenue, that’s something we’ve thought about lately because we recently launched our paywall. And since Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people, our market is pretty small, so our subscription potential is pretty small. But we have been the most trusted paper for generations, so we are looking on how to build on that trust to expand our revenue.
We have a very powerful community of people engage with us in education, and because we have that trust in our brand, we can think creatively about building our education business. We're able to do a lot more things beyond just content, right? We host story events and leadership conferences.
Hopperton: Do your leadership teams keep revenue under one person or split it between subscriptions and advertising and other revenue?
Ysebaert: It’s certainly not one person — it’s a whole network. Our future depends on how we make the transition to paid digital. We came from an age where digital was free, print was paid for. Then we made people pay for digital. It started with paywalls and we all discovered a willingness to pay for subscriptions. When Spotify and Netflix came along, people realised they have to pay for content. But now we need to stop comparing. We need to be our own category. We will probably need to double or even triple our prices, which will be hard.
Someshwar: And now Netflix is reducing subscription prices and going back to the old advertising way. But still, I think there’s only way ahead — and that’s increasing subscriptions. Our prices in the past were significantly lower than audiences were willing to pay. The balance is absolutely critical.
Hopperton: And that’s a paradox: We need to increase prices, but want our journalism to be accessible.
Ysebaert: We will always have some free content. It was always the case that half of the people paid for news and half did not. That was true back when we sold half at the newsstand and half through subscription. But journalism has a price and we still need to convince people to pay for it. We still hope to convince people to pay as much for digital as much as they used to pay for print.
Hopperton: It’s sort of come full circle now with trying to attract Gen Z to pay for news.
Boucher: It’s not that they are not interested in compelling issues, it’s just that they’re not interested in reading on a homepage. That’s one reason we’re investing in audio. We just launched a 10-minute daily news audio, and it’s going amazingly well and appealing to a young audience.
Kachar: We are still discussing the best formats and how to engage. We are not there. We still have an older audience. But when I joined the company I was 20, and I remember my boss used to say that when a person starts to pay income tax, then they become interested in paying for the news. So there is a real value at an older age. Perhaps that will be the next step for these guys
Ysebaert: Maybe, but at Mediahuis, we did some in-depth research on on Gen Z and how they look at journalism, how they look at news media. And one of the interesting outcomes that came as a surprise is that they are willing to pay, more willing to pay than Gen Y actually. But that doesn't mean that they want to pay for what we are doing now. We have to really connect with them and give them what they expect. And they expect much more transparency, authenticity. Different formats are also important. I also think audio will be very important in getting Gen Z to pay for journalism.
Hopperton: Where are you all putting your bets?
Boucher: In audio, in product data, in tech that improves efficiency. But I do think AI offers revenue opportunities. If we can block our content from being scraped, we have power.
Someshwar: In automating the mundane, in personalisation.
Kachar: In new sources of revenue like education and events.
Ysebaert: In journalism, not content. I know it’s semantics, but the point to make clear is that we invest in standards, we investigate, we want to be that trustful guide.
This converstion has been condensed and edited.