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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Insights from a tour of 16 NYC news, media and tech giants

After visiting The New York Times, Associated Press, Hearst, Complex Media, ProPublica and more, several critical trends and impactful takeaways emerged. 

June 20, 2024 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon@damianradcliffe

Last month, I co-led a week-long journalism program during which we visited 16 newsrooms, media outlets and tech companies in New York. This study tour provided an in-depth snapshot of the biggest issues facing the media today and offered insights into some of the potential solutions publishers are exploring to address them.

We met with everyone from traditional media players – like The New York Times, Associated Press, CBS and Hearst – to digital providers such as Complex Media and ProPublica, as well as conversations with academics and policy experts. Based upon these visits and conversations, here are four key takeaways about the state of media and content publishing today. 

1. Hands-on AI experience matters

Not surprisingly, AI dominated many conversations. Although recent research shows the American public is both skeptical and surprisingly unaware of these tools, the emergence of Generative AI – and the discussions around it – are impossible to ignore. 

One mantra oft repeated throughout the week was that everyone in the media will need to be conversant with AI. Despite this, research has shown that many newsrooms are hesitant about adopting these technologies. Others, however, are taking a more proactive approach. “I like playing offense, not defense, Aimee Rinehart, Senior Product Manager AI Strategy at the Associated Press, told us. “Figure out how the tools work and your limits.”

Audiences share the reticence seen in some newsrooms about the use of AI in journalism. But media players cannot shy away from the impact of this technology in terms of what they do and how they do it. 

With many media companies having to do more with less, AI can help improve workflows, support labor-intensive work like investigative journalism, as well as streamline and diversify content creation and distribution. By harnessing these AI-powered functions, smaller outlets may benefit the most, given the efficiencies these resource-strapped players may be able to unlock.

Reporting on AI is also an emerging journalistic beat. This is an area more newsrooms are likely to invest in, given AI’s potential to radically reshape our lives. As Hilke Schellmann, an Emmy‑award winning investigative reporter and journalism professor at NYU, told us “we used to hold powerful people to account, now we have to add holding AI accountable.” 

Echoing Schellmann’s sentiments, “every journalist should be experimenting with AI,” one ProPublica journalist said. “We owe it to our audience to know what this is capable of.”

2. Demonstrating distinctiveness and value is imperative 

One fear of an AI-driven world is that traffic to publishers will tank as Generative Search, and tools like ChatGPT, remove the need for users to visit the sites of creators and information providers. In that environment, distinctiveness, trustworthy and fresh content becomes more valuable than ever. “You need to produce journalism that gives people a reason to show up,” says Ryan Knutson, co-host of The Wall Street Journal’s daily news podcast, The Journal. 

In response, publishers will need to demonstrate their expertise and unique voice. That means leaning more into service journalism, exclusives, and formats like explainers, analysis, newsletters, and podcasts. 

Bloomberg’s John Authers, exemplifies this in his daily Points of Return newsletter. With more than three decades of experience covering markets and investments, he brings a longitudinal and distinctive human perspective to his reporting. Alongside this, scoops still matter, Authers suggests. After all, “journalism is about finding out something other people don’t know,” he says. 

Media players also need to make a more effective case as to why original content needs to be supported and paid for. As Gaetane Michelle Lewis, SEO leader at the Associated Press, put it, “part of our job is communicating to the audience what we have and that you need it.” 

For a non-profit like ProPublica that means demonstrating impact. They publish three impact reports a year, and their Annual Report highlights how their work has led to change at a time when “many newsrooms can no longer afford to take on this kind of deep-dive reporting.”

“Our North Star is the potential to make a positive change through impact,” Communications Director, Alexis Stephens, said. And she emphasized how “this form of journalism is critical to democracy.” 

The New York Times’ business model is very different but its publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, has similarly advocated for the need for independent journalism. As he put it, “a fully informed society not only makes better decisions but operates with more trust, more empathy, and greater care.” 

Given the competition from AI, streaming services, and other sources of attention, media outlets will increasingly need to advocate more forcefully for support through subscriptions, donations, sponsorships, and advertising. In doing this, they’ll need to address what sets them apart from the competition, and why this matters on a wider societal level. 

“This is a perilous time for the free press,” Sulzberger told The New Yorker last year. “That reality should animate anyone who understands its central importance in a healthy democracy.” 

3. Analytics and accessibility go hand in hand

Against this backdrop, finding and retaining audiences is more important than ever. However, keeping their attention is a major challenge. Data from Chartbeat revealed that half the audiences visiting outlets in their network stay on a site for fewer than 15 seconds.

This has multiple implications. From a revenue perspective, this may mean users aren’t on a page long enough for ad impressions to count. It also challenges outlets to look at how content is produced and presented. 

In a world where media providers continue to emphasize growing reader revenues, getting audiences to dig deeper and stay for longer, is essential. “The longer someone reads, the more likely they are to return,” explained Chartbeat’s CMO Jill Nicolson

There isn’t a magic wand to fix this. Tools for publishers to explore include compelling headlines, effective formats, layout, and linking strategies. Sometimes, Nicolson said, even small modifications can make all the difference. 

These efforts don’t just apply to your website. They apply to every medium you use. Brendan Dunne of Complex Media referred to the need for “spicy titles” for episodes of their podcasts and YouTube videosJulia D’Apolito, Associate Social Editor at Hearst Magazines, shared how their approach to content might be reversed. “We’ve been starting to do social-first projects… and then turning them into an article,” she said, rather than the other way round.

Staff at The New York Times also spoke about the potential for counter-programing. One way to combat news fatigue and avoidance is to shine a light on your non-news content. The success of NYT verticals such as Cooking, Wirecutter, and Games shows how diversifying content can create a more compelling and immersive proposition, making audiences return more often.

Lastly, language and tone matters. As one ProPublica journalist put it, “My editor always says pretend like you’re writing for Sesame Steet. Make things accurate, but simple.” Reflecting on their podcasts, Dunne also stresses the need for accessibility. “People want to feel like they’re part of a group chat, not a lecture,” he said.

Fundamentally, this also means being more audience-centric in the way that stories are approached and told. “Is the angle that’s interesting to us as editors the same as our audiences?” Nicolson asked us. Too often, the data would suggest, it is not. 

4. Continued concern about the state of local news

Finally, the challenges faced by local news media, particularly newspapers, emerged in several discussions. Steven Waldman, the Founder and CEO of Rebuild Local News, reminded us that advertising revenue at local newspapers had dropped 82% in two decades. The issue is not “that the readers left the papers,” he said, “it’s that the advertisers did.”

For Waldman, the current crisis is an opportunity not just to “revive local news,” but also to “make better local news.” This means creating a more equitable landscape with content serving a wider range of audiences and making newsrooms more diverse. “Local news is a service profession,” he noted. “You’re serving the community, not the newsroom.” 

Even though local journalism is typically more trusted than national media, the hollowing-out of newsrooms has created an information vacuum in many communities. 

Source: Axios

According to new analysis, the number of partisan-funded outlets designed to appear like impartial news sources (so-called “pink slime” sites) now surpasses the number of genuine local daily newspapers in the USA. This significantly impacts the news and information communities receive, shaping their worldviews and decision-making.

Into this mix, AI is also rearing its ugly head. While it can be hugely beneficial for some media companies—“AI is the assistant I prayed for,” says Paris Brown, associate editor of The Baltimore Times. However, it  can also be used to fuel misinformation, accelerating pink slime efforts.

“AI is supercharging lies,” one journalist at ProPublica told us, pointing to the emergence of “cheap fakes” alongside “deep fakes,” as content which can confirm existing biases. The absence of boots on the ground makes it harder for these efforts to be countered. Yet, as Hilke Schellmann, reminded us “in a world where we are going to be swimming in generative text, fact-checking is more important [than ever].”

This emerging battleground makes it all the more important for increased funding for local news. Legislative efforts, increased support from philanthropy, and other mechanisms can all play a role in helping grow and diversify this sector. Steven Waldman puts it plainly: “We have to solve the business model and the trust model at the same time,” he said.

All eyes on the future

The future of media is being written today, and our visit to New York provided a detailed insight into the principles and mindsets that will shape these next few chapters. 

From the transformative potential of AI, to the urgent need to demonstrate distinctiveness and value, it is clear that sustainability has to be rooted in adaptability and innovation.

Using tools like AI and Analytics to inform decisions, while balancing this with a commitment to quality and community engagement is crucial. Media companies who fail to harness these technologies are likely to get left behind. 

In an AI-driven world, more than ever, publishers need to stand out or risk fading away. Original content, unique voices, counter-programming, being “audience first,” and other strategies can all play a role in this. Simultaneously, media players must also actively advocate for why their original content needs to be funded and paid for. 

Our week-long journey through the heart of New York’s media landscape challenged the narrative that news media and journalism are dying. It isn’t. It’s just evolving. And fast.

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