The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.
Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.
AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.
So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.
1 Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.
2 Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.
3 Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.
So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.
It seems like 1994 was a busy year – not only did it see the first ecommerce transaction (a foolish purchase of an overpriced and overrated Sting album), but also the launch of the very first smartphone. And interestingly it wasn’t produced by a traditional handset vendor, but created by IBM, thus adding to the long list of inventions, such as the PC, that it pioneered but then failed to commercialise.
The oddly named Simon went on sale to the US public on 16 August 1994, and had a calendar, could take notes and send emails and messages as well as make and receive calls. Aimed at the busy executive it could be linked to a fax machine in order to handle all your communication needs. However it failed to take off, only selling 50,000 units. As curator of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, Charlotte Connelly, drily puts its “It only had an hour’s battery, it was $899 and there was no mobile internet at the time. So it wasn’t very successful.” Personally I’m not convinced the name helped either – “Sent from my Simon” doesn’t have the same kudos as “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of an email.
We’re now seeing mobile and ecommerce (as opposed to Sting and Simon) converging, and driving innovation in technology. As this nifty but messy Google Public Data graphic shows, the majority of us now use smartphones as our primary method of internet access, and, aside from reading this blog, watching cute kittens and moaning on Facebook, one of our primary occupations is buying stuff. According to Goldman Sachs, global mobile commerce will hit $638 billion by 2018 – the same amount spent via PCs in 2013. While the majority will be on tablets, smartphones are an integral part of the customer journey and will make up a direct $20-30 billion of the total.
The smartphone has changed how we interact, shop and spend our free time. We are no longer ever idle – why gaze into space at the bus stop and notice the world around you when you can play Candy Crush instead? In many ways mobile technology has outstripped our capacity to adapt, leaving humans scrambling to change their behaviour to fit in with their apps, rather than the other way around. 20 per cent of young American adults (and 10 per cent of the total population) use smartphones during sex, though mercifully the research doesn’t go into any more detail than that.
So, what does this mean for startups and marketers? The smartphone is essentially our most relied upon device, and the one we keep closest to us at all times. You can link it to sensors, watches and the world around us, through Bluetooth and technology such as beacons. It really does provide a window into our lives, which has both a positive and negative impact. Speaking personally spam text messages or calls annoy me more on my mobile than their equivalents on landline or email. It is a delicate balancing act, with the consequences for misjudging privacy or security potentially extremely damaging. But get it right with your app and you can generate big profits or deliver your message right to the heart of your target markets.
The last twenty years has seen the smartphone change the world – as well as the wider device market. It has shrunk from the 500g brick sized Simon to thinner, more pocket sized smartphones (though ironically the trend is now for larger and larger devices), with increased usability and a wider range of apps aimed at consumers as well as businesses. One thing hasn’t changed though – the Simon’s battery lasted an hour, and while I get a bit longer from my iPhone, it still can’t survive a busy day without needing a recharge……..
Ofcom’s annual study into the UK’s viewing, listening, internet and communications habits is always worth a read. This year’s tome is no different, with a headline finding that we now spend an average of 20 minutes more every day using technology devices than sleeping. Apparently the average night’s sleep is 8 hours and 21 minutes – which seems an incredibly long time to me, but then I’ve got three kids and a noisy cat.
There is positive news on broadband – there are now 6.1 million superfast connections across the country, making up over a quarter of broadband subscriptions. Given the huge amount of money invested by the taxpayer to push superfast broadband to rural areas, this is promising, but the UK still lags behind other countries on targets and speeds. For example, Finland defines superfast as 100 Mbps, while the UK target is just 24 Mbps. And my new shiny rural fibre broadband doesn’t even achieve that, measuring just 21.6 Mbps according to my ISP (when working).
TV viewing is less than 4 hours a day for the first time since 2010, at 3hr 52 minutes. But before broadcasters start panicking, bear in mind that this is more than the combined time spent on mobiles, landlines and the internet. The vast majority of programmes are still watched live, despite the rise of catch-up services.
As always the Ofcom findings are being used to predict the death of various communication channels by analysing the behaviour of 12-15 year olds and making assumptions for the future. For example, only 8% of this group said they used email and 3% communicated through landline phones, leading to experts to point out the imminent demise of these channels. I can think of three reasons why this is tosh:
People are living longer, so we actually have a growing proportion of silver surfers (complete with landlines), balancing out the younger generation. If they were cutting the cord and just communicating using WhatsApp things would be different, but no sign of that yet.
2. Why would a 12 year old use email?
In many ways email is a horrible communication channel – complex, clunky and not real-time. The reason most people use it is essentially for work or to do with boring stuff like complaining at utilities/banks. So, unsurprisingly, most 12 year olds aren’t spending their time slaving at the corporate coalface or moaning at companies.
One thing teenagers have always valued is privacy. I remember having to shoo away parents and siblings when making landline telephone calls at that age – now lucky kids don’t need to as they can just use their mobiles. So, again, why would they use landlines when they can call from their bedrooms?
So, taken altogether the Ofcom findings show that there isn’t radical change happening in how we communicate – a third of people had sent a personal letter in the last month for example. The only sector to worry should be physical newspapers and magazines, with just 2% saying they’d feel their absence. And even then, this seems a little difficult to believe seeing the number of free papers handed out in London for example.
For entrepreneurs looking to set up a business or marketers aiming to launch a new product, the lesson is don’t neglect the old channels in favour of the shiny new ones. Think laterally and improve the experience and you might well be onto a winner.
The industrial revolution mechanised previously craft-based activities, and since then machines have become more and more involved in creating the world around us. But until a few years ago, this mechanisation didn’t affect those of us in the creative industries – after all, our imagination and skills couldn’t be replicated by a machine.
The internet has changed all of that. In some cases it has allowed computers to take on tasks that were previously only done by humans, by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and breaking them into discrete tasks. You can now get computer-written journalism, which use algorithms to bring together data and organise it into a rudimentary article. In the US, stories about minor earthquake reports are now routinely created and published, based on information supplied by the US Geological Survey. It isn’t much of a stretch to see short sports reports written based on player data and profiles, avoiding the need to send a reporter out to lower league matches.
However the biggest threat or opportunity to the creative industries is that the internet and digital technology has broken down the barriers around previously specialist occupations. Take photography. In the past only professional photographers could afford the equipment needed to create (and manually develop) arresting images. Now, similar levels of performance are available in a smartphone, and PhotoShop can do the rest. News stories frequently use amateur shots from bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time, adding extra depth to articles. Design and PR are both equally affected. Anyone can set up as a web designer or copywriter, without necessarily needing to undergo lengthy training.
In many ways this is a good thing – the internet has democratised creative industries that were previously off limits to most of us and enables more people to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It uncovers real talents who never previously would have been spotted, whether that is musicians on YouTube or specialist bloggers with a passion for their subject. But what it also does is amateurise previously professional occupations. How can a portrait photographer compete on cost with a bloke and an iPhone? Again, a copywriter on eLance charges much less than a professional. And the overall effect is that there is more stuff out there (words, pictures, videos of cute cats), but quality is far more hit or miss.
Before people start complaining, as someone that makes a living through PR and copywriting I obviously do have a vested interest here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome more competition and the chance for more people to be creative. Far from it. However businesses need to understand that you get what you pay for – in the same way that fixing your car yourself is inherently riskier than going to a garage (unless you are a mechanic), working with amateurs opens you up to potential issues. Do they have insurance if something goes wrong, do they understand copyright, are they using legal images on your new website? There are 101 questions that you need to be sure of, before handing over your money. And it can be pretty obvious when a website has been put together by the managing director’s teenage son or daughter. Businesses therefore need to strike a balance between democratisation and working with amateurs if they are to stand out in an increasingly crowded global market.
Since the rise of the internet, there have been plenty of people predicting the steady decline of mainstream journalism. As people consume more content online they are unwilling to pay either to buy newspapers or to access firewalled content, except for specialist titles such as the Financial Times or The Economist. The result? A huge drop in the number of journalists employed in the newspaper industry – in the US numbers have dropped from over 55,000 in 1990 to under 40,000 today.
However, we are actually consuming as much, if not more, news than ever before. Much of this is in different forms, such as via social media or through news videos. The latest Pew Research Centre State of the News Media report found that a third of Americans now watch news videos online, rising to half in the 18-29 demographic. There’s also been an explosion in the number of digital news firms, creating 5,000 US jobs.
What’s interesting is that these companies are evolving fast. Rather than simply competing with traditional news sources by rehashing stories (or putting out controversial click bait headlines in the case of sites like BuzzFeed), they are investing in original content. Star journalists are being poached from top newspapers, lured by the opportunity to write longer articles without daily deadlines and with greater editorial freedom. Part of this growth is financial – launching a credible digital news site is relatively cheap, around $5m in the US for example.
And the Pew report finds that consumers are getting more involved in the news. 7% of Americans have posted their own news video to a social network or established media outlet and half of social media users share or comment on articles.
The difficulty for traditional publications is two fold – they are still running a print newspaper which has huge fixed costs, while consumers are much less loyal. They’ll click on a link on social media, irrespective of (or not even knowing) its source and then, once they’ve read it, leave the site without necessarily checking out other stories. In the UK the picture is skewed by the credibility and power of the BBC, which has successfully embraced the digital world, helped by its guaranteed funding through the licence fee.
So, what can newspapers do to evolve and change? From what I can see they have five options:
1 Put up a paywall
Given that people spend money on newspapers, why shouldn’t they pay for online content? Hence the rise in paywalls. However with a fickle readership, getting people to commit requires content that they truly can’t get anywhere else, which in turn necessitates investment in journalism, or extras such as Premiership goals in the case of The Sun. It works when the content is original enough or the subscription deal is compelling. On the downside paywalled content is a lot more difficult to share socially, so the overall reach of the title drops as well.
2 Make a go of advertising
Sounds easy – write good stories and advertising will flood in, both in print and online. In theory yes, but we’re back to the fickle readership and the increased competition for advertising pounds. Only those publications that really differentiate themselves (such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian) have grown their online audience enough to deliver a strong advertising revenue. In the print world, the Evening Standard has been able to transition from a paid for to free model, but it has been helped by having an owner with deep pockets.
3 Find a sugar daddy
With newspapers suddenly cheap, there’s been a rush of billionaires investing in them, either as a vanity project, something more sinister or simply because they can turn them around. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, the Boston Globe is now owned by Liverpool FC owner John Henry and Warren Buffett has purchased a whole stable of titles. Even the aforementioned Evening Standard is owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev.
4 Become a brand
If you can build a strong reputation for content, you may be able to transform yourself into a global brand. That’s the aim of The Guardian, which has made its name around the world by breaking stories such as Edward Snowden’s revelations. At a more local level it explains the rush of local newspaper groups into local TV, enabling them to share resources and cross-promote.
5 Get someone to write it for you – for nothing
Blog-based sites such as Mashable and the Huffington Post started out without much in the way of original content, but built themselves on contributed blogs. They’ve now expanded to create many more of their own stories, but the model – attracting interesting, informed bloggers looking for the oxygen of publicity – still works equally well on other sites. Both sides benefit, so provided the content is good it adds to a site’s appeal.
Most newspapers have looked at all five of these ideas (some all at the same time), but with varying degrees of success. However, as the Pew report shows, journalism can flourish in the digital age – it just may not be appearing in traditional media outlets.