Guest Columns
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Gen AI will not save journalism. Only journalists will do that.

Media adviser and AI consultant, Jeremy Clifford, returns from the beautiful town of Perugia, central Italy, to give his reflections on this month’s International Journalism Festival. TL;DR: Gen AI is a tool and not a solution, and what will really win out is investment in good quality, in-depth, relatable journalism.

The Perugia International Journalism Festival has come to a close and many thoughts and summaries have been published.

Generative Artificial Intelligence was the dominant theme and continues to be so, with the INMA Congress in London having a large focus on Gen AI last month (April) and the WAN-IFRA Congress in Copenhagen in May also placing great emphasis on this new tech.

Gen AI is indeed the greatest opportunity for journalism, while also being perhaps its greatest threat one recurring thought persists for me. Gen AI is a tool and not a solution. It is a tool that should be used to enable the media to get closer to its audience.

And yet, audience is not always being mentioned. More mentions go to how it will increase efficiency, how it will make it easier to publish, and how it can be used to create automated tasks.

I am a big fan of a piece of writing by Rasmus Nielsen, from the Reuters Institute, whose recent report brought into sharp focus how Gen AI could be used for the betterment of journalism. To paraphrase, he said that if Gen AI is seen as a tool to merely make more of the same content, more efficiently (cheaper) then all we are doing at the moment is producing more volume of content that the audience places a low value on.

Less content volume, better content experiences

We are missing the opportunity to explore what Gen AI can do to enable better “content experiences” to be created, something Mattia Peretti, a Knight Fellow of the International Centre for Journalists, elaborated on at Perugia.

And by that I take it to mean how Gen AI can be used by journalists to work out what audiences want to read and to be used as a tool to help journalists to create it.

I am hearing too many use cases of publishers who are using AI to extend their existing content to audiences, rather than talking about how it has been used to suggest new ways of producing content.

However, Aftenposten is demonstrating creative use of AI to help them to produce educational materials as podcasts for school kids. Really interesting was their findings that their AI audio products were making content accessible to neurodivergent people who struggle to read, such as people with ADHD.

Staying with the Reuters Institute, Nic Newman shared a panel discussion with Ellen Heinrichs from the Bonn Institute, highlighting seven ideas to address news avoidance.

This, combined with a presentation from George Montagu, of the FT Strategies team, began to zero in on what the media needs to work an awful lot harder at. The simple idea of providing content that audiences are interested in, in a format they are interested in, and with greater accessibility, particularly for the younger, emerging generations of news consumers.

Unbridled negativity needs to be replaced

Sadly, though, too many media organisations are still churning out the same supply of often negative news that people are increasingly saying they are avoiding either periodically or frequently. (As an aside, last night, I was watching the BBC news and its main stories were: More deaths in Gaza, Warnings about China’s role in supporting Russia, Trump on trial – and so I went to bed with a negative drumbeat of news ringing in my ears – no wonder people are avoiding the news.)

Newman and Heinrichs talked about human-centric stories, new formats to tell the news, making news relatable and looking for solutions and hope.

This was echoed by Montagu, whose research document into what the younger generation want from their content (not news) providers, was similar in many ways.

The research found “a profound gap between the news experience the next generation wants and what they are currently being provided with”.

He talked of content of personal significance, news is about their curiosity not necessarily what the news agenda is. Actionability, that they can do something with this information. And interestingly, Convenience – by which he meant not a dumbed down version, but content that was dense with information but served in short form and in a tone and language they did not have to work hard at to understand.

So, while AI may well be seen as a panacea – hopefully – for some of the challenges being faced – the greatest challenge I believe is for the industry to adapt to what the audiences are telling us they want and don’t want – by voting with their feet. Our content is not relatable enough, not accessible enough and not in a format they want.

My final thought on AI comes from the panel of Julia Angwin, Meredith Broussard and Dhruv Nehrotra, who underlined the fact that humans still had a crucial value in the age of Gen AI. They stood up for high-quality, deep reporting in a way that AI cannot do.

And that fills me with hope, that what will really win out is investment in good quality, in-depth, relatable  journalism.

Jeremy Clifford
Founding Director, Chrysalis Transformations

Jeremy Clifford is a media adviser with more than 30 years experience in newsrooms. He helps organisations to manage digital change in their organisations, coaches them through change management and runs a consultancy in how to use Gen AI for the betterment of journalism.