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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Amid AI, ads and antitrust, press power holds the spotlight at DCN Summit

February 15, 2024 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter
The topline: At DCN's annual members-only summit, a recurring theme was the importance of leadership in the face of threats to the press and technological transformation.

At the 2024 DCN Next:Summit, held February 7th – 9th in Charleston, SC, senior executives from DCN’s member companies discussed the biggest issues and opportunities impacting the future of media. It was fitting that CEO Jason Kint opened the event by reflecting on the human agency, energy and collaboration that drive the industry forward.

“Let’s face it, algorithms can’t write a Pulitzer Prize winning exposé. They can’t tap out a heart-wrenching screenplay or build a company culture that thrives on innovation, inclusion and empathy,” he said. “We all understand that algorithms crunch data. Tech is very much part of our future. But it’s the human creativity spark that ignites us all.”

As the industry navigates the ever-changing media landscape–which continues to be shaped by technology–Kint reminded attendees that it’s not machines, but humans, who will write the next chapter of our collective story. While he pointed out that media organizations must be positioned to best-leverage and benefit from emerging technologies, Kint emphasized the critical role of those gathered at the Summit, particularly as they guide the teams they lead.

The impact of generative AI

Unsurprisingly, a broad theme of the event was the many ways publishers are approaching, using, experimenting with and challenged by generative AI. On that note, Todd Krizelman, CEO and co-founder of advertising intelligence platform MediaRadar, said his company approaches AI from two directions: the business and editorial sides of media. For him, AI is the most exciting part of his business, and the media business, right now. “Many companies will be testing the kind of stuff we are, but I do think it is a genuine opportunity,” he said.

Rafael Urbina-Quintero, the chief operating officer of ViX at TelevisaUnivision Inc. told Axios media reporter Sara Fischer that his company is starting to experiment with short form content using AI to do translation. “We have certain properties that travel really well.” 

Kedar Prabhu, vice president of ad product and technology at Dow Jones, explained that Dow Jones uses AI for audience lookalike models and contextual targeting in ad tech. The company is also looking at use cases for AI including translation, voice transcription, personalization and video production.

POLITICO is focused on using AI to improve its subscriber experience. Goli Sheikholeslami, CEO of POLITICO Media Group explained that, while POLITICO has tens of thousands of legislative bills on their platform, only about 40% of them had summaries. However, “over the last three months, we’ve now taken all of our bills and through AI, now provide summaries for every single bill that’s on the platform,” Sheikholeslami said. POLITICO is also looking into how to use AI tools to help journalists do their jobs better and improve workflows that allow them to do more value-added work.

Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer at Ally Financial said that they are not only testing the Ally.ai platform, a large language model for campaign development, they’re also using AI to keep up with consumers’ “insatiable” demand for content on their Conversationally blog

However, as many echoed throughout the event, AI is a powerful tool, best employed wisely by people. “We’ve used AI to make our writers more proficient to accelerate the amount of content that we’re able to put out into the atmosphere,” Brimmer said. “But, the difference at Ally is everything’s got to have a human touch. So, everything that we do has a human in the center of the transaction.”

In general, both speakers and attendees made it clear that despite AI’s huge potential value and use cases, they have concerns. “There’s a gap between tech capability and business value that is yet to be crossed, in particular when it comes to generative AI. I expect that, given what we’ve seen, we will eventually cross that gap, but we’re not there yet,” Prabhu said.

AI can be a powerful tool for making decisions, predictions or completing tasks. However, it is critical to keep in mind that it is not immune to problems like racism, sexism, ableism, explained author of More Than a Glitch, Meredith Broussard, who is an associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University. 

Problematic platform partnerships

From Apple, to Samsung, Facebook, Google or Amazon, publishers and brands seek partnerships with platforms because it helps drive revenue, build audience and market share. However, these days everyone is approaching platform partnerships with caution.

The Weather Company is very selective in the partners that they’ll partner with, explained CEO Sheri Bachstein. She added that they have partnered with Apple, Samsung, Facebook and Google, which helps extend their brand. Platforms add value, drive revenue and add the ability to create more segmentation, Bachstein said. “So, you make a decision strategically, ‘I’m going to partner with this person versus for this data’ to drive your business.”

Brimmer explained that Ally Financial has been somewhat tepid on platforms. “We use platforms episodically. Until we feel comfortable that all brand safety measures are in place, there are platforms that we will just stay away from,” she said. 

Indeed, as Paramount COO Steve Ellis put it, in many ways “it is not an even playing field when we talk about platforms because we have to abide by a whole different set of standards as a premium company.”

Marketing and advertising to culture

While coping with cookie depreciation was a recurring theme, the subject of equitable and diverse advertising was also a topic of much discussion. As Axios’ Sara Fischer pointed out, the media industry still lacks systems and processes to support marketing and advertising to culture.

TelevisaUnivision COO Rafael Urbina-Quintero, whose over-the-top streaming service ViX targets the 600 million Spanish-speaking market, agreed. It’s a huge opportunity for the company, which has a large share of the broadcast market in Mexico and about 60% of the Spanish-speaking market in the US. 

Urbina-Quintero explained that the company has developed an entire creative services unit to help advertisers create pieces that allow them to effectively market to these audiences. “It’s a massive opportunity where you’re talking about over a trillion dollars in purchasing power, and one of the fastest growing parts of the population.”

Ally Financial’s Brimmer said that, over the past several years, the company has been focused on ensuring that women’s sports get a fair deal. While women’s sports have grown in popularity, they still received a fraction of the marketing investment and sports media coverage. With this in mind, in May 2022 the company committed to spend equally on men’s and women’s sports within five years, and is poised to reach its 50-50 goal ahead of schedule–by the end of this year. 

Becoming a champion of women’s sports has been more than a feel-good project for Ally, according to Brimmer. She pointed out that it takes a lot of effort, funding and differentiation to break through in sports. So, leaning into women’s sports gave Ally Financial the opportunity for disruption. 

She said that the company could see that “the moment for women’s sports was really coming [and asked] ‘how can we naturally and authentically integrate into that to be one of the brands that can punch above our weight, especially in this highly complex media ecosystem?” The decision has paid off. Brimmer says that the company “finished last year with the highest level of all of our KPIs in the history of our company, highest level of awareness ever in the history of our company, highest level of positive brand sentiment ever in the history of our company…the earned media impressions alone have been staggering.”

As Paramount COO Ellis described, there’s an opportunity being missed in which marketers can align their messaging and actions with underrepresented communities. “It speaks to how entrenched processes and systems are,” he said. “We have to change processes to change the outcomes and I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough as an industry to change how we market to culture.” 

Antitrust action

Platforms are coming under heavy scrutiny in 2024. Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an inquiry into big tech companies including Alphabet, Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp, and their investments in AI companies OpenAI and Anthropic PBC.

The inquiry will examine the relationship between some of these big tech companies and newer AI firms that they’ve been investing in, explained FTC Chair Lina Khan in a live-streamed interview with Axios’ Fischer. Khan says the agency is asking “Are there certain expectations of exclusivity? Are there certain rights to board seats, or other mechanisms influencing business strategy or direction of innovation?”

Historically, at technological inflection points, you have potential paradigm shifts in the technologies that are available can be enormously important for opening up markets and injecting competition and disrupting existing incumbents, Khan said. “We just want to make sure that these relationships and partnerships are not being misused to undermine competition.”

In a session recorded for The Verge editor Nilay Patel’s podcast “Decoder,” Jonathan Kanter, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust at the department of justice, set the stakes even higher. “News and journalism is the raw material of our democracy and the marketplace of ideas is vital to a thriving… democratic free society.” Therefore, his work examines whether monopolies have arisen, or are poised to, which threaten the health and survival of the news media.

As Kanter described it, “if monopolization and harm to competition is harming journalism, it means that companies can’t invest in original journalism in the kind of reporting and infrastructure that is necessary, not just on a national level but on a local level, to keep our country free of corruption, to make sure that our political discourse is well-informed, to make sure that people can learn about exciting new things, to make sure that we can vote in an informed way. It’s hard to imagine something that’s more important, more critical to the fabric of our nation.”

Press freedom, democracy and the human cost of doing journalism

Throughout the program, storytellers from around the world discussed the human cost of journalism, and the need to unify as an industry to protect journalists and the right and responsibility of the media to speak truth to power. 

Paul Beckett, assistant editor at The Wall Street Journal, detailed the work he and a wide team from the WSJ and others are doing to release his reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia. He emphasized that it is up to the entire industry to protect journalists from forces that would stifle the free press. “It has ripple effects and, at its broadest, it is an attack on one of the great freedoms,” Beckett said. 

Rappler CEO and 2021 Nobel laureate Maria Ressa discussed her ongoing efforts to hold the line on press freedom with Pivot podcast co-host Kara Swisher. She also explored her 10 point plan to support journalism. “In 2021, I compared what tech did to an atom bomb exploding in our information ecosystem… because it’s changing the cellular level of democracy. It’s only gotten worse since 2021,” Ressa said.

In 2024, at least 64 countries (including the European Union) will hold national elections. That’s almost 50% of the world’s population.  “Since we don’t have integrity of facts, how are we going to have integrity of elections?” Ressa pointed out. 

She called for publishers to stop competing with each other when it comes to larger issues of misinformation, disinformation, and the impact of dominant platforms on the media industry and society as a whole. While she recognizes that news organizations vie for audiences, Ressa believes there are areas where collaboration is critical. “I know that we cannot continue competing against each other because we’re on the same side of facts,” said Ressa. “We’re on the same side of a shared reality, right? Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.”

Amid the attacks on the press by those in power, it’s important that the press behave as professionals, not combatants, former Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron explained to the audience. “I think one of the critical things for us is to actually persuade the public that we’re giving them information… that we’re not just participating in ideological or partisan warfare,” Baron said. 

People shape the future

As digital media progresses with artificial intelligence, navigates platform partnerships, protects democracy, and markets to new cultural opportunities into 2024, it’s clear that the future of the industry lies in its people. As DCN CEO Jason Kint remarked, “it’s in the hearts and minds of extraordinary individuals who make up our membership, it’s the humans who uncover the truths, who amplify silenced voices and who hold the powerful accountable.”

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