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.
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.
While all professions are guilty of jargon, there’s a definite tendency in PR to reuse and recycle the same tired old phrases when it comes to press releases. Leading, innovative, solutions, unique – as in “company X, the leading provider of innovative and unique solutions, today announced……”
At best they don’t mean anything and at worst hide a potentially good story as any self-respecting journalist has nodded off at the end of the first paragraph.
Often we’re told we can’t change them by clients as they are part of house style and that they set the company apart in its messaging. A useful piece of research by Adam Sherk, quoted in the Johnson blog in The Economist, explodes this myth. By analysing words and phrases in press releases on PR Web, he found that leader and leading, for example, were used over 200,000 times. That’s a lot of leaders – are there no also-rans?
This isn’t the first research that there’s been in this area, and all PR people have had sarky comments back from journalists on this subject, but it should act as a wake up call for press release writing. Start with messaging that is clear and differentiated. Then explain things simply, without hyperbole but with a range of language – as Adam’s research shows it might actually make you stand out from the crowd.
On a first look, the publication of 90,000 US military records on Wikileaks shows the power of citizen journalism and social media. It is extremely unlikely that any organisation would have been able to get legal clearance to publish the leaked Afghan War records – you can see the lawyers going apoplectic at the very thought of it.
But how did Wikileaks get the crucial second source and endorsement for the documents? Not through its own resources or credibility but by sharing them with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Only when they had cross-checked the information (and the media organisations had their exclusives) were they released.
It shows the essentiallybetween ‘old’ media and new channels. Both sides need each other if they are to break big stories – and I can’t see this changing in the near future.