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GenAI embrace will impact news media business model soon, record INMA London audience told

2 May 2024

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GenAI embrace will impact news media business model soon, record INMA London audience told


LONDON (2 May 2024) – News media must embrace generative AI in the pursuit of business models that reinforce trusted journalism, even as corporate strategy underpinnings evolve closer to impact and influence, according to key executives addressing the INMA World Congress of News Media last week in London.





The 94th Annual World Congress of the International News Media Association (INMA) at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Centre April 22-26 drew a record 659 delegates from 48 countries.


World Congress Week included 118 speakers across a media conference, two study tours visiting 20 London media outlets, and four workshops focused on GenAI, newsroom transformation, subscriptions, and product and tech. Meanwhile, INMA unveiled the winners of the 2024 Global Media Awards at a gala dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The week featured an opening reception at the Tower of London.


INMA CEO Earl J. Wilkinson challenged the news industry to think bigger – beyond regional borders, media genres, and corporate archetypes. Media c-suites should re-imagine assets for a fuller range of monetisation options and consider strategically designing their companies around “influence” and “impact.” There is no one-size-fits-all business model, Wilkinson said. To sustain journalism as a pillar for societies, today’s generation of media leaders must “preserve values that transcend generations” and “re-assemble assets now digitised for a new era of consumption.”


Optimism rises among INMA participants


According to a survey of INMA London participants, news media executives are sharply more optimistic about their companies’ business prospects in the next 12 months (72%) than the same survey conducted one year ago (56%). That optimism extends to revenue, advertising, and subscriptions expectations, the INMA survey revealed.


The survey also delved into the minds of media company c-suites, asking about challenges and worries:

  • Challenges: Media executives told INMA in the survey that maintaining or growing consumer revenue is the clear top challenge, with understanding and implementing generative AI and diversifying and balancing revenue sources closely secondary.
  • Worries: When asked to identify the biggest worries of the c-suite, financial performance, innovation and technology adoption, and change management and organisational agility came out on top.

In terms of where media companies are putting their money, the top internal investment areas are product (56%), subscriptions (53%), generative AI (44%), technology (42%), and newsroom (29%), the INMA survey showed.


Wilkinson said the biggest surprise in the annual INMA survey of World Congress participants centered on the year-to-year shift in the worries around change management and organisational agility: While 33% said this was a worry one year ago, 56% indicated this was a concern today.


Where GenAI fits with news media


CEOs of the world’s leading news media companies took a mostly positive approach to GenAI, while technology experts and authors guided INMA delegates through contexts that point to optimism for productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency.


Putting generative AI in the context in April 2024 was a recurring discussion at the INMA World Congress.


Storyflow founder David Caswell said that even if AI suddenly stopped its development, there are so many applications that would take years to develop as products. On the other hand, Gartner’s famed “hype chart” was referenced at least twice during the conference, suggesting that GenAI has already passed the peak of interest. That did not jibe with audience reactions at INMA London, as one speaker hinted generative AI had become the latest “holy grail” growth tool.


Speakers repeatedly hinted that generative AI expands the “range of the possible” at media companies. Caswell put forward the idea that news creation, summarisation, and distribution can be fully automated. Others pointed out that the rise of AI-generated content for formulaic “commodity news,” such as weather and traffic, would elevate and underscore the value of human-generated content on more sensitive topics. All the while, Caswell added, history teaches us that GenAI may be like electricity, which took 20 years to be present everywhere – yet change will come far faster with generative AI.


Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner equated ChatGPT’s emergence with previous epiphanies that digital would overtake print and that the iPhone would be the reading device of the future. Said Döpfner: “This is a generation of new answering machines that have the potential to either completely destroy media as we know them or bring us to a new level. Either it’s the end or it’s a new beginning, and it really depends on us how this is going to develop.”


Reinforcing work done by INMA in its fledgling Generative AI Initiative, London speakers broadly distilled the early efforts with AI into internal applications and customer-facing products. Caswell emphasised the unleashing of creativity behind new products and functionalities as the real power of GenAI. If anything, media companies should be bolder, more imaginative, and more ambitious. The world has not yet seen the true power of generative AI, he added.


Among specific applications of GenAI are driving down journalism’s production costs, supporting or replacing journalism’s workflow, and helping shift journalism investments toward higher quality and meaning, speakers said.


“If we do this, then we rediscover the original essence of journalism,” Döpfner told the INMA participants.


SkyNews Executive Chairman David Rhodes said the use of AI “should allow (media companies) to connect to audiences better” and “give people the news products from us that they’re looking for.”


New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Kahn is “cautiously optimistic” about generative AI, citing editing capabilities, content management, harnessing data sets, creating visualisation, synthetic voice, text-to-speech, and listening to articles.


Translation tools offer the highest priority and hope, yet they remain only promising at this stage, according to Kahn as well as Tony Gallagher, executive editor of The Times of London. NZME CEO Michael Boggs cited opportunities to monetise will grow exponentially with AI-generated audio.


Meanwhile, GenAI is already having a big impact on the advertising community, S4 Capital Executive Chairman Sir Martin Sorrell said. Time has already been compressed for creating an advertisement, notably visualisation and copywriting. Media planning and buying jobs are being lost, and Sorrell predicted further job compressions due to AI.


Daniel Hulme, chief AI officer at WPP, said AI can “unlock the creative landscape” for media companies, notably how the ability to create content more rapidly will completely change marketing and communications. Said Hulme: “Clients want more and better content reaching people in more moments. This will push the boundaries for new story arcs.”


Despite the optimism around generative AI, Il Sole 24 Ore CEO Mirja Cartia d’Asero warned about the threats to employment as well as democracy itself via misinformation and disinformation.


Underlying the navigation of a “dirty” open Web, speakers repeated key themes about relationships with Big Tech platforms. For example, companies that use data and original content created by news media companies must pay for it. Döpfner said “copyright as (we) know it is finished,” suggesting regulation on how AI is used is needed. News media must fight for a fair legal framework that enables journalism.


The INMA survey of World Congress participants backed up the speakers’ views on GenAI, yet also revealed a sea change in attitudes from the fledgling technology. C-suite participants overwhelmingly see generative AI as an opportunity to improve effectiveness (74%), productivity (64%), and efficiency (42%). While GenAI was an experiment with unknown outcomes a year ago (44%), the picture is clearer 12 months later (16%). While threats and unknowns virtually disappeared year-to-year, slightly more executives see GenAI as a threat to the news industry this year (32%) than last year (26%).


Change management needed in media


The rapid development of generative AI has accelerated the pace of change at media companies, and this is clashing with news media workforces under-prepared for the relentlessness of that change, World Congress speakers said.


According to the INMA London survey, the biggest sentiment shift among the media c-suite during the past 12 months is the need for change management programmes. Döpfner lamented the human unwillingness to change, suggesting the importance of “seducing” people to want change. WPP’s Hulme told delegates that the more adaptive a company is, the more innovative it is.


Crucial to understand is that technological changes are inevitable and exponentially accelerating. Media companies should focus less on the technology and more on how workforces respond and adapt to change, with the need for cultural agility rising in importance. This will impact media’s credibility and trust with readers over time. Minos Bantourakis, head of media, entertainment, and sport industry at the World Economic Forum, agreed, saying technology cannot be stopped, but it’s value-neutral and up to people what is done with it.


Cultural change and adaptability came up repeatedly in conversations about newsroom transformation, which participants rated as their No. 2 priority for discussion at the conference during a live survey from the stage.


Central to that discussion is how to instill a flexible culture, how to break down silos within organisations, and how to better understand audiences and deliver impactful journalism at the times and in the formats our readers want.


Edward Roussel, head of digital for The Times/The Sunday Times in London, said he thinks the language media executives use in discussing changes within newsrooms should be “rooted in what pain points are we trying to solve for customers.”


Subscriptions and business models


The INMA World Congress delved into business models throughout the week. While subscriptions (70%) and advertising (48%) dominated a pre-Congress participant survey about hottest growth areas, it was clear from the survey data that audio (32%), events (28%), and e-commerce (24%), and video (15%) have emerged as the clear secondary profit and engagement centers for news media companies.


Yet subscriptions continue to dominate challenges, opportunities, and internal investments by London World Congress delegates, according to the pre-event survey. Some 82% of participants expect subscriptions growth in the year ahead, compared with 69% one year ago.


That bullishness could be found in other data, too. INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota said the news industry is nowhere near a ceiling for subscriptions, citing INMA benchmark data that pushes against a storyline of consumer and publisher fatigue. Instead, the core challenge in subscription-mature media companies is confronting bad products, the simplicity of acquisition offers vs. the complexity of personalised retention offers, and bundling for value.


Yet where subscriptions sit in a media corporate strategy based on influence and impact is another matter, Wilkinson said. A myopic focus on subscriptions risks the creation of less journalism for fewer people, and this is antithetical to the news industry’s overriding mission in society. This is why the development of commerce strategies, the repair of the “dirty” digital advertising ecosystem, and partnerships with Big Tech are important to extend the reach of quality journalism and the news brands that carry them, Wilkinson said.


News avoidance and young audiences


Staying relevant with audiences is crucial to news media’s success. That aspiration comes with different tactics such as maintaining a direct relationship and embracing formats that are attractive and engaging such as audio and video. Especially with younger audiences, audio and video are more suitable for legacy media’s brand than text and photos, according to Siv Juvik Tveitnes and Anders Eriksson, CEOs of Schibsted Media and Bonnier News, respectively. In London, News UK’s The Times is expanding its social media presence and radio, notably Instagram and TikTok.


Kassy Cho, founder and editor-in-chief of Almost in Taiwan, said young people do want news, but it’s not being delivered to them in a way that makes sense to them. Said Cho: “If you can’t find young people, you are not meeting them where they are.”


The INMA conference tackled news avoidance, nibbling around the edges of an evergreen challenge that should be addressed yet may not be the growth blocker many believe.


People are avoiding news, at least occasionally, because they find news boring, repetitive, and bad for their mental health, said Ben Haywood, chief product officer of Stuff in New Zealand. How news is crafted makes people feel bad, said Jodie Jackson, director at the News Literacy Lab. Solutions reporting and journalism that investigates progress are crucial remedies.


Having said that, news avoiders are not media’s target audience for subscriptions, Piechota said. Therefore, it’s a problem for governments and civil society – not a business problem for marketers.


Advertising trends


On the advertising front, INMA’s Wilkinson cited different aspects of the London World Congress survey showing that while 48% of INMA members say advertising is a top growth area, up 5 points from last year’s survey, only 13% of members say advertising is a top area of internal investment. As for advertising expectations in the next 12 months, 54% of London participants expect growth, compared with 46% a year ago.


“Advertising is important,” Wilkinson said. “Yet it is the most perplexing portion of the business model.”


Ad spend on traditional linear media is expected to decline 10% per year and shift to the Top 6 Big Tech platforms because of personalisation, Sorrell said. “The train has left the station,” said Sorrell, who said his agency will prepare 1.5 million different creative pieces of content to support the launch of a new Netflix series. Traditional media can “shift the needle” by using big news events to their advantage, he said.


Dotdash Meredith’s chief innovation officer, Jonathan Roberts, shared his company’s formula for reinventing the digital publishing model: faster Web sites, the best content, and no bad ads.


The cookie-based technology to reach digital audiences is failing, Roberts said. Dotdash Meredith has embraced intent-based ad targeting based on content is a better predictor of what a person will do next than demographic data. Cookie technology has unleashed a clickbait culture by incentivizing identifiable eyeballs.


This battle between two targeting methods – first-party data strategy and contextual ads – is an underlying storyline facing the media industry, Wilkinson said. The challenges are that media companies are slow to register users, and there are increasing signals that advertisers don’t want to pay extra for publisher first-party data.


Wilkinson predicted that AI will change advertising as we know it, driving contextual targeting, filling gaps in first-party data to fuel behavioural targeting, and enhancing campaign measurement.


Journalism and the trust factor


For a conference focused on the business of journalism, the subject of journalism itself came up repeatedly. Kahn emphasised following facts and keeping opinions aside. “We are not partisan,” Kahn said. “That’s not the same thing as we have the equal view of the misinformation and the real information.”


Döpfner urged a clearer separation between journalism and activism, saying a journalist must be “unbiased, as non-partisan, as unpredictable, and as critical in all directions as possible.” News companies must become “more informative than judgmental.” Kahn pointed to the surprise element of journalism, too: “Our commitment to independent journalism is a commitment to make many of our readers unhappy most of the time.”


Meanwhile, journalism roles and expectations are evolving. A panel of chief editors encouraged journalists to do more public relations. According to Fortune Executive Editor Alex Wood Morton, journalists need to give context to great content on other channels such as podcasts.


Where London sits in news media


While INMA brought the world of media to London, delegates were repeatedly reminded why the World Congress was being held in London. In a landscape defined by hyper-competition, innovation, and tech evolution, London stands out as a beacon of inspiration for media professionals worldwide. Said INMA President Maribel Perez Wadsworth, CEO of the Knight Foundation: “The London news media market is unlike any in the world. What happens in London doesn’t stay in London. It reverberates everywhere.”


Among media companies visited during the study tours were Bauer Media, DMG Media, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, News UK, and Tortoise. Other U.K. companies on the study tour were Canva, The Drum, and Reuters, along with Six Sells and Ogilvy. Several international companies were visited such as AWS, Chartbeat, Google, Microsoft, Piano, and Politico. A private interview with Sir John Hegarty focused on brands and trust, as well as the continued need for creativity in brand-building.


One study tour participant told INMA that it was pleasantly surprising to see London newsrooms, post-pandemic, abuzz with people again.