Staying relevant as a news source is no longer about being the first one with a story.
Being first is a bonus, but for most traditional media outlets, it’s virtually impossible. With the rise of YouTube, influencers, and social media in general, hour-by-hour reporting from “citizen journalists” has all but replaced the 24-hour news cycle. The reality is that anyone with a smartphone can provide raw, transparent coverage well before a news van can even leave the station’s driveway.
When a magnitude 4.2 earthquake shook San Fernando Valley in July of 2020, Patton Oswalt tweeted about it within four minutes – even before LA QuakeBot, which is a Twitter account linked to a seismic register. Oswalt’s tweet was funny, but the questions it raises about the state of news reporting are much more serious.
A tidal wave of technology is behind this major evolution in journalism. It’s not the first: there have been several since the inception of the industry during the 15th century. And just like those previous changes, this one is largely for the better. Twitter and other social media, for instance, allows for the amplification of underrepresented voices. It also puts pressure on coverage to be timely and truthful.
The best journalists are leaning into this digital news landscape and leveraging it to serve their audiences and their careers. Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs is a good example, often publishing teasers of her current news stories on Twitter. Her approach takes into account the need for deep fact-finding and careful vetting, while also respecting the fact that today, media consumers want to be engaged in real-time.
By and large, however, managing society’s digital transformation hasn’t come easily for news outlets or for journalists. According to Pew Research Center, American newspapers lost half of their staffs from 2008 to 2019. A global pandemic only made things worse. The New York Times reported that 36,000 media company employees have either lost their jobs or received pay cuts as a result of Covid-related circumstances. At this point, the people and companies hit hardest by shifts in the industry are just looking for a way to survive.
So, how do you survive in journalism? The answer is simple – surface stories that your audience cares about, stylize them relatably, and share them in a timely manner. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. In fact, it’s almost impossible without help from digital tools. In a classic case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” news organizations are going to have to embrace the power of technology.
Chasing Down the Trends
Let’s break down the problem a little more fully:
According to TopicPulse, the average trending topic on social media lasts only four to six hours. That’s the amount of time that journalists have to uncover, analyze, choose an angle, fact check, format, and publish a breaking story. It’s a dubious task. The way that newsrooms are trying to go about it is equally dubious: reporters are manually sifting through thousands of minute-by-minute topics to prioritize stories and angles that they think will be most impactful to their audiences.
The assignment desk has been mostly reduced to a place where you sit while scanning social media for your next six-hour-long story. It’s not just denigrating and tedious for journalists, it’s also a highway to hell (where hell is total irrelevancy) for news outlets. That’s because no human journalist has the superpowers necessary to keep track of the modern news cycle, no matter how intimately they know their audience. Bleed enough subscribers to contemporary, ad hoc reporting and you’ll soon be out of business – something that one of five U.S. newspapers have already learned the hard way.
What is technology going to do about it? Enter the power of artificial intelligence.
MORE FOR YOU
MORE FOR YOU
The Newsroom of the Future
Unlike journalists — even those with an endless supply of caffeine — AI can work around the clock. AI systems like TopicPulse can monitor and quantify social interest and engagement not only on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but tens of thousands of other news sources simultaneously. They can track the evolution of trends by the microsecond, and soon will be capable of predicting trends 24 to 48 hours in advance.
AI can do more than just chase down headlines and angles, though – it can also help journalists know how to make them work based on insights about audience demographics. And on the back end, it can close the editorial loop by providing data on how that angle is landing with readers or viewers.
Imagine that your target market is adult males aged 35 to 55 residing in a particular geographical region. The right AI tools can take the guesswork out of knowing what will resonate with them right now by consolidating and analyzing all of their social interactions, freeing up journalists to focus on checking the facts and styling the story for their audiences.
The win for news outlets is in conserving precious time and resources instead of throwing them at irrelevant or out-of-date stories. Meanwhile, the win for journalists is being able to focus on value instead of speed and volume. The relationship that journalism can have with AI symbolizes an ideal kind of human-technology symbiosis: AI does the time-consuming work of surfacing the right stories for your audience, freeing up journalists to do their best creative work.
As my very own VP Tim says, “Journalists and brands have always tried to build connections with the audience. Now, that is becoming easier, with the right tools. Viewers, listeners and readers want that connection with the journalists and brands they follow. Using AI to understand the audience is the best way to make sure you are making a lasting, valuable connection”
There’s a high likelihood that the newsrooms of five years from now will be even more virtual than they’ve become as a result of Covid. But regardless of whether journalists work remotely or in a room together, it’s what they’re doing that will be strikingly different. With thousands of bright, curious minds able to focus on investigating and storytelling instead of scouring social media, we might even see another Golden Age of journalism.
A final note for those to whom this all sounds just a little too much like science fiction:
It isn’t. It’s happening right now. To avoid being left behind, organizations should learn to capitalize on it sooner rather than later. For them, their collective staffs, and consumers of news media worldwide, the future of journalism is looking like a win-win-win.