At the 24th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, the question of how AI will change journalism was one of the hottest topics, on stage and off. Here are four takeaways from the conference:
ChatGPT and similar technologies have the potential to allow news organizations to engage with audiences more deeply
To say ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI are hot topics in the industry right now is probably an understatement. Aimee Rinehart, the program manager of Local News AI at The Associated Press, said more than 2,500 people signed up for a webinar in March on the topic.
Newsrooms are using AI tools to make repetitive news gathering tasks easier, such as generating story summaries, adding hashtags, and creating outlines, Rinehart said.
“I think we’re going to see some amazingly creative projects in the next year or two,” she said.
But some panelists suggested the future of AI is less about automating the rudimentary tasks, and more about how ChatGPT and its kind can compile a news organization’s journalism into specific answers to questions readers could ask.
Sam Han, the director of AI/ML and Zeus Technology at The Washington Post, shared that the team there created an intelligent, automated storytelling agent called Heliograf. The chatbot was used in recent elections to help readers obtain and analyze information.
The results are shown in a conversational format, and readers can follow up with more questions.
Examples like this are more the types of projects news leaders should explore, said Jeremy Gilbert, Knight chair of digital media strategy at Northwestern University.
The questions should be less about “is this going to replace the local journalist in the newsroom,” and more about “how do newsrooms do more things to serve our audiences better,” he said.
Sisi Wei, editor-in-chief of The Markup, said she also isn’t as worried about the question of whether AI will replace more journalists. Many jobs in newsrooms now didn’t exist 5-10 years ago, and a lot of them involve using more technology.
“Until we see more examples of why we should be alarmed, I’m not too worried on the jobs front,” Wei said.
Network television has increasing reach with streaming and mobile
Janelle Rodriguez, executive vice president of NBC News, shared that with the growth of streaming, her team still sees incredible interest in news across all platforms.
“There are so many different ways to access news and information beyond the three networks,” she said.
NBC News has focused on expanding its reach on new platforms, including Snapchat and streaming. It has a digital-only program called Stay Tuned that is produced exclusively on Snapchat to reach younger audiences.
There’s a misconception that young people aren’t interested in news, but Rodriguez said NBC News data shows that belief is simply not true. The team has found demand is as high as ever.
For example, NBC Nightly News gets 1 million views on YouTube. The team also found that 90% of audiences watch on a traditional TV set, even if it’s a Smart TV.
Streaming is also becoming the way older adults are choosing to view, because all new TVs being manufactured are Smart TVs. They grew up watching the network news and they still watch.
Collaboration is key to covering the climate crisis
Vernon Loeb, executive editor of Inside Climate News, said that when he reflects back on how covering news used to be, organizations were more competitive.
Now, the goal of ICN, a nonprofit news organization covering climate, is the opposite. Loeb shared an example of a project on fracking in Pennsylvania that is being published on multiple news sites across the state.
“We don’t have competitors, we only have partners,” he said.
The entire team at Climate News is also aware that partnering with local news organizations is how covering the climate crisis can expand. With the documented loss of local news reporters creating news deserts, collaboration is the only way to fill that gap, Loeb said.
“If anything is going to help make up for the loss of local reporters, it’s going to be this kind of ethos of collaboration,” he said.
Collaboration can also happen a different way in climate reporting: Directly with readers. Manuela Andreoni, a climate reporter for The New York Times based in Brazil, said she is involving readers in her coverage of climate change across the world.
For example, The Times asks readers to share their climate actions and pledges for the year. The responses from readers are included in the newsletter.
The era of social media is over
At the start of the panel on newsletters, podcasts, and text messages, moderator and Axios Media reporter Sara Fischer asked the panelists if the era of social media is over. They all generally agreed it was.
David Cohn, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Subtext at Advance Publications, said news organizations are deepening their relationships with their audiences as opposed to chasing the scale that the social media era brought.
“Social media gave news organizations access to the largest audience in human history,” he said. “It’s maybe better to have 10,000 brains than a billion eyeballs.”
Texting has become a key platform in developing direct relationships with readers, Cohn said. It has a 95 percent open rate and feels less like a to-do list than email.
People are also more discerning about which brands will get their phone number, Cohn said, which means texting with readers takes on a more personal tone than email.
Coleen O’Lear, the head of curation and platforms at The Washington Post, said it has become more important for news media organizations to build products themselves.
The Post’s focus on apps and newsletters has deepened its relationship with readers. While it is still cultivating the large audiences available on social, such as The Post’s following on TikTok, the team’s goal is get readers back onto its own platform.
For example, some people said they subscribed to The Post after seeing a unique story on TikTok.