Credit: Left to right: Charlie Beckett (Polis, LSE), Jo Adetunji (The Conversation), Nic Newman (RISJ), Sophia Smith Galer (VICE), Tom Richell (The Independent)

News leaders are divided on what the future holds for digital journalism. But, if they can agree on anything, it is how critical it is to understand your unique selling point (USP) as a news brand and play to those strengths.

In the last Reuters trends and predictions report, just fewer than half of top editors and CEOs (44 per cent) said they were optimistic about their business prospects – mostly finding confidence in news subscriptions. But this figure was 75 per cent last year.

The indifference or pessimism of the other half is understandable given that he news industry is going through rapid change; rising production costs, social media turbulence, a flagging attention economy, mass job layoffs, and of course, the advancements of artificial intelligence (AI).

At the Society of Editors’ Media Freedom Conference today (15 March 2023), journalism innovators discussed how their newsrooms are adapting to the latest challenges of digital journalism.

Standing out in a bustling attention economy

"The abundance of news is the biggest problem alongside the fact it can be a very distressing experience," says Charlie Beckett, founding director, Polis, at the London School of Economics.

He reasoned that from the outside looking in, the news appears random. Modern audiences can – at any moment – be bombarded with horrific war updates or political scandals on their phone screens.

Newsrooms can opt to give audience more choices over content, like Pink News did by introducing an uplifting mood filter to weed out unpleasant news stories. The other option would be to be more deliberate about publishing.

Jo Adetunji, editor of The Conversation UK says that, for example, it is not specific enough to simply cater to 'young audiences'. Within that subset are different needs, interests and goals.

The Conversation, for instance, has an article series that targets young professionals in their 20s and 30s, who are seeking life and career advice. It also has a climate newsletter specifically designed to suggest what actions audiences can take.

Polis' research into journo-influencers offers a view into why influencers are so effective at what they do. Far from being gimmicks, they work incredibly hard to meet the needs of their audience and reward their loyalty.

Beckett says there are few better "prototypes" of the journo-influencer than Sophia Smith Galer, senior news reporter of VICE World News and a Tiktok content creator with 460 thousand followers and 14 million likes.

VICE was not the first to launch on TikTok, but has seen rapid growth to its current 3 million followers and 70 million likes. She credits its digital legacy for developing and embracing best practices and workflows.

For example, all VICE reporters are trained and confident with vertical video and there are all sorts of unusual job titles, like a drugs editor, to deliver on key audience interests.

"We have been allowed to build expertise which is often siloed in other news organisations," says Smith Galer.

The news organisation also launched on Twitch - a live-streaming platform commonly associated with video gaming, not news reporting. Smith Galer even announced the Queen's death on the platform. The presenters focus on blending in with the platform, rather than sticking out as journalists, and have scheduled slots for the news streams.

Tom Richell, head of multimedia at the Independent observes that this is essentially broadcast news reimagined for a digital setting. His team has similarly launched a smart TV channel to host documentaries.

The Independent is famous for going fully digital in 2016, a controversial decision to ditch its print operations. It is a testament, Richell says, that the organisation has a "heritage of not being afraid to experiment".

The headache of artificial intelligence

The other big threat is the advancement of AI. ChatGPT has gained attention for taking care of time-consuming tasks, like quickfire copy.

There are beta news apps which aspire to summarise huge numbers of news stories for the perfect debrief. There is also generative AI that can create illustrative video based on various input, as in the case of news startup Semafor. The technology is capable of making mistakes though.

It still puts pressure on newsrooms to either adapt or fail to compete. But Beckett, an expert on artificial intelligence, reassured journalists that their jobs are safe. Just as copy should not be published without a sub-editor, it would be foolish to allow AI to publish material without a human editor.

Smith Galer – wary of the technology undercutting artists' work – says text-to-image tools like Midjourney are better as an inspiration kickstarter. She uses it as the basis of her ideas and then builds on those designs.

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