The future of journalism post-COVID19: technology, diversity and collaboration

What is the future of news after Covid-19? How will new technologies such as AI change our journalism? How will forces for social change such as BLM impact on that process?

Polis director Charlie Beckett argues that these are all related trends in this article based on the evidence he gave recently to a UK parliamentary inquiry into the future of journalism.

Changing Information Ecosystem

Journalism has been through an extraordinary, multifaceted series of changes and they are not all about technology. The whole information ecosystem has changed and so has society. In terms of technology and news, there have been three big shifts. First, there was the move online more than 20 years ago. News organisations got websites. Secondly, there was the move into social media. This was much more complicated in the ramifications and in terms of the kind of journalism that was produced and the relationship with the audience. Thirdly, we are now in a phase where journalism is going to become much more distributed, much more diverse in terms of the organisations, and much more devolved in terms of how people get their information. AI and ML technology is going to be at the heart of this.

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Virtual meeting of the JournalismAI Collab

Structural Support for News Media

That is what we are doing with JournalismAI. We are trying to get newsrooms to collaborate and share best practice with the network. We have created an online training module to help them create an AI strategy. We do not have the money to actually make everything happen. But we hope to grow our global network and spread ideas and best practice organically.

Inequalities and Public Information

We have also identified serious inequalities around AI. There are inequalities within the news industry. Some large companies are much more advanced and have greater R&D capacity. The news industry as a whole is tiny compared with other industries and sectors that might use AI: pharmaceutical, retail, health. To get the technologists to pay attention, the news media has to do a much better job of explaining its needs and the special value and opportunities journalism offers. It is not just about convincing the tech companies to hand over money, because the tech companies are actually being quite helpful, even if you suspect their motives to be self-interested. The news media needs to leave taxing the tech companies to governments and focus on how the platforms and network companies might provide structural help such as sharing data and promoting quality journalism.

Entrepreneurial Diversity

One of the biggest skills journalists are going to need is to be entrepreneurial — I mean that in the broadest sense — to understand the diversity of journalism. There is an over-abundance of information in the world at the moment, and too much of it is the same or of poor quality. One of the things that journalists are going to have to do is work out how they add value in what they do, day to day and year by year. That has only partly to do with the technology, of course. You get pioneer journalists such as Sophia Smith Galer at the BBC, who is doing clever work on TikTok. I do not think TikTok is the solution to the news media’s problems, but she is a good example of a digital-savvy person using technology, and she has done it in an entrepreneurial, creative way in line with the core values of her employer.

The Human Factor

Journalists need core human aptitudes such as curiosity, creativity and commitment. You have to believe in the ideal that your journalism is going to have some kind of impact. To reflect back on society in its diversity, you have to have lots of different approaches, attitudes and skills. The idea of the hard-boiled hack is one useful myth. I am not saying it is wrong, but especially in the modern setting, where journalism cannot just rely on being that cliché core industry, it has to be more diverse in its make-up and its practice.

Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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