Stop treating AI like magic and start focusing on targeted, operational experiments

A message of support to all of those in media who lost their jobs in 2023

I did something rare over the holidays. I took a break and downed tools so that I could start 2024 recharged and ready for everything that this year will bring. I hope that all of you had some downtime as well.

My downtime has left me in a reflective mood. 2023 was a challenging year for people in the media, and back in the US where I’m from, tens of thousands of people working in the media lost their jobs last year. Mark Stenberg of Adweek called it the “worst year in digital media”. And in the UK, where I live now, friends of mine lost or left their jobs.

I’m a survivor and so will all of you talented folks, even though it’s stressful and extremely challenging. I survived the crash, the one that wiped out a wave of early internet companies but also wiped out the careers of an early wave of digital journalists. I know so many incredibly smart young journalists like myself who lost their jobs and couldn’t find work in the industry because it didn’t value their skills at the time. A few years later, they would be desperate for staff with their skills. Increasing precarity has been the trajectory of the industry. I worked for the BBC for eight years, and half the time there were cuts. I worked at The Guardian for three and a half years, and half the time there were cuts. I worked for Gannett for 21 months, and as I have told many friends, I survived the first six rounds of cuts but not the seventh. It has been a lot of turmoil, and it has not always been easy to keep my confidence.

Of course, the other challenge for me and so many others is a loss of professional identity. Who are we outside of newsrooms? How will we ever find a job with such purpose and meaning again? Trust me when I say that there are a lot of ways to use your skills to do meaningful work. My career has been a wild ride and a fascinating journey and will continue to be. If you know of someone who needs to talk, point them in my direction.

Now onto the new year. 2024 is already upon us. The Press Gazette has a good overview of the challenges that media leaders are focused on in this new year and how they are looking to respond. The challenges are familiar: loss of advertising revenue, loss of social and search traffic and anxiety over AI. I think a lot of this can be summed up by a renewed sense of ownership, with the shift to first-party data and owned platforms and owning relationships with audiences

Keeping our heads about AI

I’m not sure that I agree with the Press Gazette that the New York Times is seeking the “destruction of OpenAI and Microsoft LLMs”. I think they are rightfully offended by the lifting of their content. Plagiarism is a cardinal sin in US journalism, and the NY Times has found a wealth of examples of OpenAI copying and pasting their content. The New York Times want to be compensated for the theft of their content.

This is part of the response to LLMs by the industry. In my professional journey, I have seen too many folks treat technology as magic. They think what technology does is the realm of Harry Potter. It is much more like The Matrix: It is a logical system and sets of tools. AI offers up many operational benefits for many industries, including media. It can optimise front-page displays and tailor them for each known user. It can create personalised newsletters. It can support consistency of metadata, which can support improved discovery.

And my friend, Gina Chua at Semafor, has some other advice on how to use data and AI. He experimented building very focused chatbots to summarise reporters’ notebooks, develop interactive experiences and explain technical expertise to “resource-strapped newsrooms”. He came away impressed..

And now onto other topics. Puzzles and quizzes can build habit and engagement. Here are some examples of how to do that.

In the middle of the last decade, I used to hold up theSkimm and its newsletter-based business to help millennial women get informed quickly as an example of a great model. But like so many other millennially-focused outlets, it hasn’t aged well and continues to struggle to diversify.

It is interesting to see how many newspapers are getting into TV, not just video but TV. The Boston Globe (a customer of Pugpig, where I work) is just the latest example.

Podcasting is still attracting money. What is interesting about Podimo is that is operating in non-English markets - Denmark, Norway, Germany and Spain. Will this investment help it to break out into larger markets? (Colour me sceptical.)