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"Culture, strategy and then tools," is a helpful assessment by media consultant Isabelle Roughol, when looking at the recent Reuters Institute paper Changing Newsrooms 2023.

With generative AI buzzing around our ears, it is easy to run full steam towards shiny new tools. But that would be "taking the problem from the wrong end once again", to borrow another phrase from Roughol.

Put in place the right culture first, and the people we are bringing in are more likely to stay with us. So, next year, diversity is still the priority - both in terms of people and skills. But what do newsrooms need to do and how can leaders cultivate these skills?

AI meets user needs: Dmitry Shishkin, incoming CEO, Ringier Media

In 2024, newsrooms will advance user-centric content strategies, primarily driven by using AI as their editorial co-pilot. This approach will address news avoidance by delivering relevant content that is helpful to people. The fusion of content, data, and product takes centre stage.

Media success now thrives on differentiation and specialisation. The era of 'riches in niches' emphasises quality and focus, urging rapid specialisation. User needs-centric models, experimented with since 2016, gained prominence in 2023, marking a trend in publishing, with successful use cases emerging.

While existing news models cater to diverse needs, unexplored territories like retail media and B2B publishers await definition and optimisation. Specialisation is key, aligning with the timeless maxim of being helpful in both audience behaviour and newsrooms' ethos.

Analysing output through the lens of user needs enhances editorial effectiveness. The synergy between experimentation and AI accelerates the trend, with machine learning algorithms serving as automated editorial allies.

Ignoring AI suggestions is unwise; imagine automated notifications suggesting story treatments during morning meetings. User needs models foster organisational alignment, benefitting editorial, product, sales, and data disciplines. They bridge the gap between newsrooms' outputs and mission statements, providing necessary distinctiveness. As newsrooms creatively address audience needs, they establish a compelling reason for repeated engagement, akin to subscription services like Spotify, Amazon Prime or Netflix.

News avoidance results from our failure to be helpful to audiences. User need strategies offer a solution, connecting newsrooms with their mission, and fostering distinctiveness. By consistently addressing user needs, newsrooms can overcome growth challenges in reach, engagement, and conversion.

We can expect a year of tough strategic choices: Lisa MacLeod, director, FT Strategies

Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

In 2024 we will see the convergence of pressures on our industry like never before. As news is diminished on the big platforms, discoverability will be more difficult, integrated AI search will add to the problems, while high traffic and advertising-fueled sites will feel the pinch acutely. Meanwhile, subscription models - while more stable and generally more robust - will continue to battle the long-term effects of deep discounting and churn.

In the quest for sustainability, 2024 will be the year of tough choices and strategic reckoning on four fronts: what to focus on; what to stop doing; where to cut costs and consolidate and where to invest.

In terms of what to focus on - we discovered during extensive research for the News Sustainability Project in partnership with GNI publishers that had some diversity in revenue were on more stable ground. Those with four primary revenue sources (of 15 per cent of revenue or above) had significantly higher average sustainability readiness scores and significantly higher average profit margins (six per cent) versus other publishers (one per cent). But the choice of what to focus on has to be carefully planned and tested, and has to find purchase across organisations: from editorial to product to commercial, for it to be successful.

However, we also found that average profit margin begins to dip beyond four revenue streams, suggesting that doing too many things at once is not good for a company in the longer term. So deciding what to stop can not only help with strategic alignment and focus but it can also help with cost cutting and consolidation. And of course, this is always easier said than done: especially when ego, nostalgia or emotion cloud good judgement.

Cost cutting will remain ever present and I predict that print costs will come under stronger focus as legacy publishers aim for break even or even profitable print businesses and a strategic redirection of investment from print to revenue-bearing digital products and services with better margins. Funding new growth streams while carrying huge legacy overheads is a very heavy cross to bear, and keeping failing print products alive - no matter how loved they are - makes no sense for stretched businesses.

Finally, the days of everlasting, anonymous traffic seem to be drawing to a close and smart investments in better customer and data management will be well worth making for longer-term benefits.

AI meets news product management: Felicitas Carrique, executive director, News Product Alliance

To embrace AI effectively and efficiently, news organisations must embed it within a solid business strategy that creates value for their audiences. A strategic approach that puts the audience's needs and engagement first while advancing commercial goals is critical. This is where news product management comes in. 

News product management is the function within a news organisation that leverages proven methodologies and frameworks to align competing priorities around audience needs while offering quantifiable business results. By developing news product capabilities, news organisations can efficiently enhance both new and existing products while leveraging the power of new technologies and allocating resources strategically to serve their journalistic mission. 

While AI has the potential to revolutionise the news industry, it will not solve the industry's business model problems alone. Instead, by strategically aligning its use with mission and values, news product thinkers and managers might find innovative uses to create value and position news organizations in the long run.

In 2024, AI and news product management are set to come together to add the missing strategic ingredient in news AI efforts. Instead of starting ideation from the capabilities of the technology, organisations will flip the approach following product methodologies and begin by understanding how the audience or user will engage with their product and follow an agile development lifecycle.

With news product management guiding AI efforts, it is time to expect a news innovation landscape shaped not just by technology but by purposeful integration.

Bridge roles will make the magic happen: Lars Jensen, team lead audience, Berlingske Media

As the integral parts of a modern news or publishing organisation (newsrooms, commercial departments, IT and others) continue to hone and develop their skills to deeper and more specialised levels, the already existing need for people working, communicating and moving across the organisation will only increase.

Recent media research has shown that cooperation across media organisations is needed to succeed as a digital subscription business. An increasing number of publishers and newsrooms will learn that that also goes for the rest of the business and digital publishing and products – and that collaboration is a skill and a responsibility that needs to reside in the organisation.

Being in a bridge role requires connective, collaborative and managerial skills – plus a healthy appetite for working with people and change management.

The compass and map for people working in bridge roles will be the strategies and playbooks for how to remain valuable to one or several audiences which the entire organisation must constantly get to know better. These should be updated, realistic and actionable because when the going gets tough and the temperature increases the solution will be sought here.

Organisations will need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Who do we need to connect across our organisation chat?
  • How do we do it?
  • Who can do it?
  • Are those people in our organisation already?

We cannot forget about promoting diversity: Rozina Breen, CEO and editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)

The industry has a lot of conversations about what we stand for. I am of an age where I have seen good words on a page for years and whilst those are not insignificant, we will need to do it even more and even better through our journalism because it means we mean action and we are more than words on a page. 

We will seriously need to do better in terms of representation at every grade. And also understand how to better support diverse talent. This year I am proud that The Bureau ends 2023 with 50 per cent of the senior management team as women leaders of colour, but there is still a way to go in terms of gender, disability, and class. We are not standing still.

Plus, we will need continued focus on inclusion - who runs meetings, whose voices get heard and how we develop the bottom-up, sideways approach. Leadership is no longer top-down. 

And how we tell the story will become even more creative.

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