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Seven steps for a successful AI strategy

September 28, 2023 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon @damianradcliffe

It’s hard to believe, but ChatGPT was only released to the public late last year (November 2022), sparking an AI arms race and spurring adoption across a range of sectors, including the media. 

Many media companies have already been using Artificial Intelligence for some time. However, rapid advances in this technology have accelerated interest in the possibilities AI can unlock. As a result, media leaders will find that discussions about AI are impossible to ignore. It’s a topic that currently dominates industry conferences, newsletters, websites, and our social feeds. 

So, how can media leaders best harness these developments? What are the steps they need to have in place to make the most of these advances? Here are seven things you need to consider:

1. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon

The media has long been guilty of shiny object syndrome, chasing after the next big thing in the hope that it will help solve multiple short-term and long-term structural issues. All of the noise that’s being made about AI can make media leaders fear that they are behind the curve. From the publishers I have spoken to recently, the FOMO (fear of missing out) is very real. 

Yet at the same time, there’s a wariness too. After all, the media landscape is littered with many other developments (the Metaverse, VR/AR, pivot to video, blockchain et al) that have been simultaneously held up as saviors and disrupters. 

Will AI be any different? I think it will be, not least because elements of this technology have already been deployed at many media businesses for a while. Developments in Generative AI are the next stage in this evolution, rather than a wholesale revolution. 

2. Take time to determine the best approach 

Findings from a new global survey published by LSE seem to reinforce this. They found that although 80% of respondents expect an increase in the use of AI in their newsrooms, four in ten companies have not greatly changed their approach to AI since 2019, the date of LSE’s last report.

Adoption of new tools at this time may therefore be lower than you think. Perhaps that may give you the confidence to take a beat. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon too quickly, take the time to determine what you want AI to help you achieve. 

This approach can help to lay the foundations for long-term success. Strategies should start with the end in mind. Set goals and ascertain how you’ll know when they have been achieved. 

3. Set up a taskforce to understand what success looks like

To help them determine their own approaches to the latest wave of AI innovation, companies like TMB (Trusted Media Brands) and others have set up internal task forces to understand the risks, as well as the benefits that AI may unlock.

In doing this, media businesses can learn from the mistakes of those who’ve arguably rushed into this technology too quickly. CNET, Gannett and MSN are just some of those who have recently had embarrassing public experiences as a result of publishing (unchecked) AI-written content.

4. Bring the whole company with you

Given the breadth of activities that can be impacted by AI, these internal bodies need to be diverse and include people from across the business. This matters because media firms should see AI as more than just a cost-saver. 

Harnessed correctly, it may help to create fresh revenue streams and to reach new audiences. To realize this value, publishers need to cultivate company-wide expertise and carefully assess where AI can drive efficiencies, enhance existing offerings, or enable entirely new products and services. 

Tools like Newsroom AI and Jasper can help to increase the volume, speed and breadth of content being offered, while AI-produced newsletters like ARLnow and news apps like Artifact demonstrate how AI can deliver content in fresh ways. Developing internal training programs and encouraging take-up of industry wide opportunities to gain more knowledge about how AI works and its possibilities will help with buy-in and culture change.

As Louise Story, a former executive at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently put it, “AI will reshape the media landscape, and the organizations that use it creatively will thrive.”

5. Have clear guidelines for AI usage

Alongside having a clear strategic approach, and a robust understanding of how to measure success, how these efforts are implemented also matters. 

Within many media organizations, there is considerable unease about the impact that AI will have. In particular, there are very real concerns about job losses. In unionized, and non-unionized environments alike, this labor concern will only grow

One way to help offset this concern is to upskill your staff and ensure that representatives from across the company are involved in setting your AI strategy. A further practical step involves creating a clear set of guidelines about how AI will be used in your company. And, indeed, what it will not be used for. 

Numerous companies around the world have publicly shared their own efforts, which can be valuable to learn from. As can critiques of these approaches by researchers. 

Image via Gallup

There are also opportunities to engage your audience in this process too. Ask them for input on your guidelines, as well as being clear (e.g., through effective labeling) about when AI has, or has not, been used. This matters at a time when trust in the media remains near record lows. AI missteps only risk exacerbating some of these trust issues, emphasizing why elements of this technology need to be used with an element of caution.

6. Understand how to protect your IP 

Together with labor concerns, another major issue that publishers and content creators are contending with relates to copyright and IP. It is important to understand how you can avoid your content being cannibalized – and in some cases anonymized – by Generative AI.  

Although tools like the chat/converse function in Google Search and Microsoft’s Bing provide links to sources, ChatGPT does not. That’s a major source of concern for media companies who risk being deprived of clickthrough traffic and attribution. 

As Olivia Moore at the venture capital firm AZ16 has pointed out, ChatGPT is by far the most widely used of these tools. Its monthly web and app traffic is around the same size as that of platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn, and Twitch. 

In response, publishers can use the OpenAI Data Opt-Out Request form to avoid their content being scraped, as well as block OpenAI’s web crawler “GPTBot” via the robots.txt file. The New York Times has also gone a step further. Last month the Gray Lady updated its terms of service to forbid NYT content from being used in “training a machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI) system.”

7. Monetize your IP if/where you can 

This summer, the Associated Press agreed to license its content to OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, making it the first publisher to do so. Not every company can replicate this. How many outlets have the reach, brand and depth of content that AP has? Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if other major publishers – as well as consortia of other companies – follow suit. 

Similarly, it will also be interesting to see how the platforms respond. At the risk of history repeating itself, we are already seeing discussions about new revenue share models, partnerships with publishers and grants to encourage experimentation and innovation. Sound familiar? 

The media industry has learned from past experience that relying too heavily on tech companies can undermine their long-term sustainability. Short-term financial grants and shifting algorithmic priorities may provide temporary relief but fail to address deeper impacts on creative business models. 

Creating quality content comes at a cost. Having seen revenues eroded and journalism undercut previously, publishers are rightfully wary about how this will pan out. So, it will be critical to weigh any payment schemes and financial relationships against the larger industry-wide impact these tools will have on content creators.

Addressing this issue is not easy, given how nascent this AI technology is and how quickly it is developing. However, the potential risk to publishers is understandably focusing a lot of minds on identifying and implementing solutions. For now, as this issue plays out, it’s one that needs to be firmly on your radar.

Moving Forward: diversification and compensation

The rapid evolution of AI presents a heady mixture of both promise and peril. The companies that are most likely to flourish will have to balance the opportunities that AI offers while avoiding its pitfalls and threats. 

That’s not going to be easy. However, the relationship between AI developers and content creators will remain a deeply symbiotic one. 

“Media companies have an opportunity to become a major player in the space,” argues Francesco Marconi, the author of Newsmakers: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Journalism. “They possess some of the most valuable assets for AI development: text data for training models and ethical principles for creating reliable and trustworthy systems,” he adds.

Given this, arguably it’s all the more important that the media industry is rewarded for this value. “We should argue vociferously for compensation,” News Corporation’s chief executive Robert Thomson says.

At the same time, media companies also need to be cognizant of the fact that AI-driven changes in areas such as search and SEO, as well as consumer behaviors, are likely to impact traffic and digital ad revenues. This is akin to “dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive,” contends the technology reporter Matt Novak.

With regulation unlikely to come any time soon, arguably it will be up to publishers, perhaps working together collectively, to navigate the best solutions to this thorny financial issue. That may include collective bargaining and licensing agreements with AI companies using their materials, as well as creative partnerships like the new AI image generator recently announced by Getty Images and Nvidia.

In the meantime, it will be more important than ever for media companies to diversify their revenues, as well as step up their efforts to rethink their business models, operations, and products to ensure that they are fit for the age of AI. 

Professor Charlie Beckett argues that fundamental to this will be content that stands out from the crowd. “In a world of AI-driven journalism, your human-driven journalism will be the standout,” he told us recently. Differentiation will be key, concurs the former BBC and Yahoo! executive David Caswell. Meanwhile, as Juan Señor, President of Innovation Media Consulting recently reminded us, “we cannot rely on someone else’s platform to build our business.”

This means that publishers will need to focus on originality, value, in-house knowledge and skills, as well as the ability to bring their organization – and audience – along with them. 

These are major challenges, and we need to acknowledge that AI offers both challenges and opportunities to media companies. Steering through this uncertain period will require making smart strategic decisions and keeping abreast of a rapidly changing landscape. The AI-driven future is hard to predict and navigating this transformation will require both vision and vigilance. But one thing is certain. It’s going to be a bumpy, creative and fascinating journey. 

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