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Despite AI, audience interest still central to content production

Despite all the attention on artificial intelligence, machine-based learning, and various other technological advancements, the audience remains at the centre of journalism and news business models, says Roshini Claire, and explains why

“It is important to learn the reasons driving audience growth, given that India will soon possess the largest Internet-using audience globally,” Bharat Gupta, CEO of Jagran New Media, said during the Digital Media Asia 2023 conference in Singapore. “In the past, growth was relatively static, with publishers focusing on producing content and expecting users to consume it. This later moved on to creating more interactive and dynamic sites,” he said.

Bharat Gupta, CEO of Jagran New Media, India. (All pictures here taken at the conference.)

“Understanding audience science and behaviour – what content they want to consume and why – is essential in content production,” Gupta said. “Content teams should set goals in order to create content that will benefit their audiences.” Understanding the audience profile will help content teams to identify if a product is sufficient for the entire audience or not. For instance, understanding that GenZ, GenX, Millennials and local communities have different interests, requirements, and preferences with regard to content presentation will go a long way towards enhancing the type of content produced. Language, user experience, privacy, and safety are also paramount. 

Thomas Schultz-Homberg, CEO of Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien, Germany, pointed out how AI can help identify different audiences and recommend content that is specific to their individual interests. Nonetheless, AI cannot replace editors who are needed in the content development process, he said. The audience is the focus at Stuff, although New Zealand has a much smaller population than India, said Sinead Boucher, executive chair at Stuff, New Zealand. “We are part of people’s everyday lives in New Zealand and are really proud of that,” she said. 

Thomas Schultz-Homberg, CEO of Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien, Germany.

The core priorities at Stuff place customers at the heart of the business model. These priorities include optimising data and intelligence to attract customers, improve their lives, and help them win with valuable content, products, and services. Boucher also noted the importance placed on building the deepest, richest knowledge of New Zealanders by developing real-world connections with the audience of Stuff. “Our audience is a direct mirror of the New Zealand population,” she said.

As such, it is important to understand the sentiments of the audience rather than merely examining data on engagement and site visits. “We also noticed that people desired meaningful and joyful communal experiences following the pandemic lockdowns. We realised we needed to use our platforms to drive these experiences and tie in our digital and print content with these live events,” Boucher added. 

Schultz-Homberg pointed out that, moving forward, it is also crucial to foster journalism the audience wants and not merely provide them with content that publishers want them to consume. Additionally, content teams need to reflect the audience. “If [you] are catering to an inclusive and diverse society, your team should also be representative of that change [in order to] produce content or bring that experience to the product,” said Gupta. 

The audience can also help produce content, said Boucher. The Stuff-owned social media platform Neighbourly comprises 950,000 verified users and provides key data and insights into the lives of New Zealanders.

Adapting newsrooms for the future 
Business models and newsrooms require fundamental changes to cope with future challenges. “Without technology, there is no future for newsrooms,” said Schultz-Homberg. As publishers, it is vital to be ahead of the curve and identify how technology can help steer the way towards the future of publishing, such as with natural language processing, he said.  

Uma Patel, News Lab lead, Google, Australia & New Zealand.

Echoing his sentiment was Uma Patel, News Lab lead, Google, Australia & New Zealand, who described newsrooms as the “engine rooms” and main drivers of business models. “Newsrooms are good at holding powerful institutions accountable with a healthy dose of scepticism, but that scepticism can make it difficult to encourage risk – a vital ingredient for experimenting,” she said. Adapting and experimenting within newsrooms are crucial to ensuring the effective management of disruptions. 

Patel described a framework created at Google that aimed to help journalists experiment from within newsrooms, resulting in newsroom innovation. “It is important to embrace failure as well. If every experiment succeeds then we aren’t experimenting,” she said.

Combating misinformation
Recognising that Stuff was an essential source of quality, accurate news in New Zealand prompted Boucher to buy the company for NZD1 when the previous owners intended to close it. This involved completely resetting and reimagining the 165-year-old business to rebuild it for the future. To grow specific reader revenue products, the company needed to completely change its structure to pursue different strategies for digital and masthead publications.

“A large sector of the population was becoming very susceptible to misinformation,” Boucher said. “Our vision was to become the most trusted [news] organisation in New Zealand.”  Journalism has experienced diminished trust over the past few years, so we wanted to rebuild trust in journalism and media, she added.

There is an unmistakable trend towards polarisation and trust in the news has reduced globally, said Jaime Ho, editor at The Straits Times, SPH Media, Singapore. “The news industry needs to identify how it plays a part in fermenting or mitigating this issue,” Ho added. While Singapore news media has largely managed to maintain audience trust, being widely read does not necessarily equate to trust, and vice versa. Furthermore, maintaining audience trust will continue to pose a challenge.

Jaime Ho, editor at The Straits Times, SPH Media, Singapore.

Overcoming news fatigue 
Audiences have actively minimised news consumption, including that from social media, to better protect their mental health. This has a direct impact on journalists and editors who must evaluate the risk-benefit ratio of news consumption; that is, recognising and minimising the downsides of social media while continuing to provide vital content. News avoidance, fatigue, or malaise may prove more detrimental than technology if we do not take steps to address these issues, Ho added.

“The most important disruption is the one that threatens the core of what we do and that is the relationship we have with our audiences. We need the courage to test new ideas, platforms, and work processes to combat these issues, and newsrooms must encourage creativity and experimentation. We can often get quite glum talking about our challenges, but I daresay there still remains a lot of joy and meaning in what we do,” Ho said.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer, an external contributor to WAN-IFRA, is a freelance editor and writer with over 15 years of experience
in the publishing industry.)

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