Jesper Doub (left) and Madhav Chinnappa (right) speaking at the International Journalism Festival on 19 April 2024

Last week's International Journalism Festival featured more talks and topics than anyone could responsibly follow. Here are five sessions that caught our eye and you can still catch up with all the other talks on the website.

Frosty relations between publishers and platforms explained

Jesper Doub and Madhav Chinnappa are two news industry veterans. They are also former news partnership directors at big tech platforms - Meta and Google respectively - which sought to find ways to partner with the news industry.

But rifts in the relationships between the publishers and platforms have formed amid many anti-news publisher algorithms changes over the years. And the audience did not let them forget how Meta's negligence caused the spread of hate crimes that led to genocide in Myanmar.

People like Chinnappa and Doub were brought in to ease tensions and provide some vital support and funding for the news industry. Chinnappa claims his team injected $250 million of Google's money into the news industry.

What went wrong? Platforms made decisions without considering the impact on the news industry, and the news industry overestimated the value it was providing to platforms. Doub even said that news was seen internally as of "negative value" to platforms and they will go on with or without them.

There is a false assumption, Chinnappa adds, that platforms like Google have stolen the entire ad revenue market. Legacy publishers were too slow to capitalise on their audience, according to Doub, allowing big tech platforms to swoop in with a better product.

Speaking from the audience, Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler in The Philippines, called for greater acknowledgment of the platform's mistakes.

Chinnappa responded by saying the relationship has become "adversarial" and platforms have become "defensive" to the point of only doing the minimum to appease news publishers. The pair called for renewed, constructive conversations between platforms and publishers - and not just the Axel Springers or News Corps of this world, either.

Proceed with caution as you lead with AI

The arrival of generative AI was compared to the advent of the internet, and smaller newsrooms stand to gain a lot from embracing the tech with the right approach.

AI has proved useful for general efficiencies, including filling out application forms for grants, something which is a constant plate to spin amongst non-profit newsrooms like Capital B, which reports for black communities in the US.

In a multi-generational and bilingual newsroom like Radio Ambulante Studios, tools like ChatGPT can suggest taglines for content which can become a heated point of debate.

However, AI is often trained on black box algorithms from tech companies, says Natalia Antelava, co-founder and editor-in-chief, Coda Story, as this is often the subject of a lot of their specialist reporting.

Even when AI is trained on news content - as is a common touted solution - this can "supercharge" past failings and biases. You do not need to look far to find shortcomings in the historical coverage of black communities in the US, says Akoto Ofori-Atta, co-founder and chief audience officer, Capital B.

When it comes to embracing AI internally, her suggestion is to devise an AI task force with a wide range of backgrounds from younger reporters to senior and executive leaders. The more diverse the perspectives, the better, to catch biases if they appear.

User-centric models dictate solid strategy

For newsrooms with limited resources, it matters what you decide to focus on.

South Africa's Daily Maverick is a national publication that fully embraced user-first approach. It assigned its reporters some reading material to map out what the country spends its money on, what residents worry about the most, and what people's hierarchy of needs are.

Four themes emerged: safety and belonging, age of accountability, sustainability, and learning and development. From there, they understood how their journalism could support those themes and what topics needed covering and commissioning.

This user-centric thinking works in many other ways, from copyrighting for its membership to a crowdfunding campaign for World Cup coverage which gave donors access to the newsroom via a Slack workspace.

Your Questions Answered is an elections guide newsletter that also goes out to 60,000 people and it has among the strongest open rate at the organisation at around 60-70 per cent on average. It found that readers wanted more basic questions answered than the editorial team anticipated.

In Denmark, Zetland has 40,000 people signed up to its membership model which brings in 85 per cent of company revenue. It now wants to take this model into neighbouring Nordic regions.

Zetland takes audience feedback very seriously. A reader survey indicated 75 per cent of its audience wanted audio journalism, and now the company is a self-described "audio newspaper" which publishes mostly audio articles.

Every year, they do 60 deep dive phone interviews with the readers to get an updated sense of their needs, worldview and preferences.

The publisher tried lots of strategies over the years to grow its membership to limited success, from TV ads to giving away free memberships. What has worked best is to every year publicly disclose its membership numbers, profits and targets. 2023 was its best year, adding 6,500 members in three weeks.

Podcasts haven't peaked yet - welcome to audio apps

"It's like pressing play on the New York Times," says Mukul Devichand, NYT's editor of programming, about NYT Audio app that he introduced.

The app has been downloaded 1 million times in the last six months. It is for subscribers only, and it curates all of the publisher's daily output into one single place.

The Times boasts 100m downloads a month for all its audio content, including its flagship podcast The Daily, the biggest news podcast in the US, which in itself is the biggest market for podcasts.

It also produces Reporter Reads, which as the name implies, is audio content where a reporter reads part of their story and then opens their notebook to show the process. Last year, it produced 2,300 of these stories, featuring 600 reporters.

Why invest though? Moderator Renée Kaplan, head of news for public broadcaster ARTE, noted that the advertising market for podcasts is shrinking and there is a sense that podcasts have reached their peak.

Devichand said that podcasting is not immune to the same issues facing the rest of the news industry: a demand for quality, trust under the microscope, misinformation, and an overwhelming amount of choice for consumers.

A carefully curated, proprietary app is seen as the answer: with less emphasis on shows and more emphasis on building relationships. Bonus points for this being a magnet for young audiences.

Reeling in success through short-form video

German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) covers content in 32 different languages and social media is an effective tool for reaching more news consumers in different languages.

Meta platforms Facebook (27 per cent) and Instagram (9 per cent) experience month-on-month growth and still prove to be useful platforms for getting news content to users - despite controversial algorithm changes which has, for example, downranked content seen as political.

Meta platforms are especially popular in Asia, where DW has multiple accounts that publish natively in Bengali, Hindi and Tamil, Urdu, Dari and Pashto, Persian, Indonesian and Chinese. Those channels all concentrate on different topics and USPs, and act according to the user needs and interests of those demographics.

Algorithms can undo lots of hard work in a heartbeat, but what can mitigate that damage is loyalty amongst the audience. If people are deeply connected and engaged with your channels, they will still see and engage with your content. The trick to engagement is in the details.

All of this comes to a head in Reels - Meta's answer to TikTok - where attention is critical. It matters to know what to include in the first five frames, the production tricks for certain subjects, how much user-generated content to use.

Healthy workplace dialogue is needed, especially with distributed and remote teams. Yasmina Al-Gannabi, senior audience development manager and social media security officer, says that this is not a given in a hustle and bustle newsroom. DW implements weekly recaps, monthly Meta meet-ups and a department for A/B testing. Meta is especially good for A/B testing because users can directly compare taglines and thumbnails.

She also emphasised the need to encourage people to share their failings. This makes it faster and easier to launch new channels as they can share knowledge and learning.

Continue the conversation with us at the digital journalism conference Newsrewired on 22 May 2024. Check out the full agenda and grab your ticket now

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