Artificial Intelligence in journalism and the need for new competence
I was asked to hold an introduction to a seminar on AI in journalism in Gothenburg, Sweden. This is a transcription of what I said.
“I’m not here to talk about the future. We can’t predict the future.”
This is how one of Axel Springer’s top executives opened his speech at a media conference in Helsinki last year. I was there to talk about innovation and the importance of creating a clear vision of the future in order to make good strategic decisions.
His words was a good example of what I believe have been the medias biggest leadership problem over the past decade. Time after time we have stood in front of our colleagues and said that everything is changing, we do not know where we are going, but you all have to change. You need to develop your digital competence.
This is not a direct quote, but rather a concoction of what our message has been to employees. Colleagues who more than ever needed clear leadership and a constructive perspective on the future. Since then, we have become better at explaining what we mean by digital competence, but the challenge continues.
I have had the opportunity to talk about digitization for different industries through the years. The request has often been if I can share how the media industry has solved the digital transformation. By now, we all know that it is rather a constant state than something we solve. The need for developing organizational competence has been enormous and continues to grow.
I believe that artificial intelligence in many ways can be the savior of future journalism. It’s needed since journalism is becoming one of the most complex professions of our time.
The competence needs of the future
The value chain of journalism can be described as
information gathering > processing > analysis > formulation > packaging > distribution > usage
The transformation we have undergone so far has mostly been about packaging and distribution. Our web sites and apps are new ways to package and distribute content that is basically the same as twenty years ago.
To manage predictions
The possibilities of AI span this entire value chain. For a journalist it can make the biggest difference in the first steps. The ability to handle and analyze large amounts of information is a superpower that we need to absorb quickly. The breaking point comes when we move from reporting about the past and present to the future. AI helps us with predictions (probabilities) for a future event. Our ability to receive, evaluate and act on such a signal is crucial to our success.
In todays reporting, we tend to rely on independent studies made by researchers and experts. We present the scenarios they have developed. The journalism of the future will be able to rely more on journalists own studies and predictions, in areas that research does not monitor satisfactorily. By that giving the audience a better understanding of the present. But going from monitoring what happened to what will happen is a big shift.
Predictions also become an important tool in editorial leadership. With data-driven ways of working in the news room, we can predict and plan with ever greater precision.
With increasing use of predictions, we will also see a growing need for skills in statistics and math.
To understand the product beyond content
Technology has given us the opportunity to personalize news and offerings to our users, but it is still used to a small extent in our products. There are arguments against it, but at the same time it is obvious that a general news and content offering for everyone is not perfect for anyone. Publishing to the masses is in our DNA, but with the help of technology we can go much further with a customer-oriented offering.
It is obvious that a general news and content offering for everyone is not perfect for anyone
Media companies still argue that “we have to get paid for our content”. This when all focus should be on developing products and services so attractive that the audience can’t resist them. AI can help us move from our default format, the written text, to formats more accessible to a wide audience. It can help us package and deliver the news based on the user’s needs and desires. It can also help with new business models for customers who already experience subscription fatigue.
Knowledge about product development and customer needs is already present in media companies, but the internal mandate is still too weak. The digital products we have launched so far attract a small share of the market as engaged and paying readers. Too small in relation to the importance of reaching people with good journalism.
New values arise in the boundary between in depth understanding of users and customer needs and a general understanding of what is possible with the help of technology.
Ethics and value-driven positioning
The last area of competence I want to mention has, at a first glance, little to do with technology and AI. But it’s growing in importance with increasing use of AI.
It affects us in two ways:
- As mentioned earlier, AI can contribute to the entire value chain of journalism. This means that the probability of increased competition from new media types is high. Our positioning and the market’s experience of us in terms of credibility, purpose and goals are crucial for customers in their choice of media. Values and ethical principles of a media company will become an increasingly important part of our positioning and differentiation.
- With AI as support in the business, our productive capacity increases exponentially. This means that the systems themselves have to deal with the ethical principles that now are built into the professional and managerial hierarchy. The historical suspicion that existed between the commercial and editorial parts of our companies is perhaps history, but journalistic integrity and ethics must become more of a common ground in the media organizations.
Values and ethical principles of a media company will become an increasingly important part of our positioning and differentiation.
The ability to handle and formulate ethical boundaries and decisions and to live up to these will thus become the third area of competence I believe will be crucial with the application of AI. No organization or individual is flawless. Even seemingly solid prediction can prove inaccurate. So we must also develop our ability to assess and manage risks.
The future demands of journalism is to be almost inviolable. What was previously handled through clear boundaries between editorial and commercial must be developed into a strong common culture. A culture where ethics and values are a shared competence.
A future of generalists
Competence needs of the future tend to be seen as specialized roles in technology and data. And of course, the need for more talented employees there will follow us for many years to come. But the real challenge is the need for new generalists. People with the ability to connect seemingly disparate amounts of information to new insights. Those who understand their present and future. Who understand the people we call customers and can make decisions and act in a way that generates a collective learning for their organization.
Individuals with the ability to learn and develop their own skills will succeed better than others. If you, as a leader, should focus on one thing only, this is it. Develop your employees’ learning ability by providing them with methods and tools for skills development and give them access to information. Also, be clear with what future you believe in so they have the opportunity to show where you are mistaken.