Esther Kezia-Thorpe leading our closing keynote at Newsrewired on 15 November 2023

Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

This is a closing speech at our last Newsrewired conference on 15th November, which first appeared on Media Voices

Kevin Donnellan said in his opening session on AI, "There are no shortcuts – the groundwork you need to do to build up a business is the same. These AI tools just ease the process."

This is one of the threads that has run through each of the sessions at Newsrewired, from innovations in local newsrooms to apps for mobile journalism. There are no shortcuts.

Some people have said that the changes we are seeing today in the very foundations of the internet are like an impending tidal wave. When it comes to AI, the wave hit us twelve months ago. The following months and years will determine which of us will sink and which of us will swim.

But you know what? I think this is a time for optimism. However this plays out, news publishers have a huge advantage: you are reliant on people. Talented journalists who are dedicated to shining a light on the stories behind the headlines, as well as keeping the public up to date with politics, world events, and yes, more light-hearted things too.

AI cannot convey the horrors faced by the civilians caught up in the conflict between Israel and Gaza. AI cannot seek out the stories of families in this country struggling to pay for the basics. AI cannot persuade readers about the benefits of flexible working for new families. AI cannot uncover corruption in government, it cannot explain how the changing climate is threatening the way of life of people around the world.

You know who is really damn good at doing those things? Journalists.

For every aspect of news and newsgathering that makes an impact on people’s lives, human journalists will need to be at the forefront. 

We can definitely use AI to make that job easier. To take away the busywork. To help spot trends and patterns, publish traffic reports, spellcheck copy, automate processes and free up writers to go out and connect with people again.

But now is not the time to be cutting the very people whose work is the foundation of a news business. Where will people turn for refuge from the tidal wave of disinformation storming social media? To reputable people at trusted newsbrands.

Real audiences, real news, real people

I am not saying you have to start hiring reporters to cover Taylor Swift, although if you have the budget, go for it! What I want to emphasise is that real audiences want real news from real people. That is the principle we need to keep at the heart of our businesses.

That is not an easy task. I can joke about bean counters, but when profits are squeezed, reducing headcount is a short-term fix which is more palatable to management. Layoffs in 2023 so far are estimated to be nearing the 20,000 people mark. The danger is that this is how AI is seen as well – as a way to slim down human costs.

Have we learned from our mistakes of the past decades? The slowness to adapt to digital, the assumption that the models would be similar, that ad money would flow thick and fast with access to near-unlimited audiences? 

Or are we ready to adapt to the rapid changes these technologies will bring, with business models that incentivise loyalty over traffic numbers, community over scale, quality over quantity?

I am optimistic…if we get back to basics. Solid reporting which builds trust, balanced with solutions-focused journalism and a healthy dose of good news too. Products dedicated to building habit and loyalty, whether that be podcasts, apps, newsletters or print. Audiences built on our own platforms – thousands of TikTok followers will not save us any more than thousands of Facebook followers did. An acceptance that there are no shortcuts. 

The future of news is by people, for people.

Esther Kezia Thorpe is co-founder of Media Voices and director of the Publisher Newsletter and Publisher Podcast Awards and Summits. When not organising guests for the Media Voices podcast or writing reports, she is a freelance media analyst for a number of industry publications including Digital Content Next and Media Makers Meet (formerly What’s New in Publishing).

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