The last Conversation: How bold is the
future of journalism?
By Samuele Grignoli, BA Creative Writing & Journalism
How bold is the future of journalism? This is the question that started the last conversation of the current academic year at the Middlesex University. But that question raises other issues, and one, in particular, seems to come in everybody’s mind at the end of the conversation: How bold is the present of humanity?
The three guests of the day were Mr Pete Clifton, Editor-in-chief at the Press Association, Kate Forbes, Assistant editor vertical digital media, BBC online, and Nathaniel Barling, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of the news platform Knowhere.ai. They sat at the table on the stage in this order, which is also the descending order of their age, from the oldest to the youngest. That is somehow relevant in the way the industry is changing, and mainly, how different generations are pushing the boundaries to advance and adapt to the realities of the digital era.
Journalism, with the coming of new technology, has changed significantly. News is reaching the audience quicker than ever before. The consumers can read or watch the news on portable devices that allow them to be connected to the web at every moment and place. With the advent of the World Wide Web in the life of ordinary citizens, the news industry found the perfect channel for a constant flow of news, going straight to the consumers’ pockets. However, that comes with many costs.
One of the most significant problems the industry is facing now is the high cost of quality news production and the insufficient profit that comes from distributing that news. That has led to the closure of many news outlets and some would argue, even worse, a far more cowardly and timid journalism, which has to now bend to the market and political agendas to survive. Inevitably, these elements undermine the core values of journalistic practice, such as objectivity, and have progressively in the eyes of the public undermined its credibility.
The introduction of the Chair, Professor Kurt Barling, set the context of the conversation in the constant process of economic change driven by ideas such as creative destruction’ and ‘innovative disruption’. Mr Clifton was the first guest to talk. The Press Association (PA) is one of the most trusted news agencies across
the UK, and its editor-in-chief illustrated reasons why the company can be trusted. PA has invested a great deal of money and resources in the development of the digitalisation of its content to carve out its space in the digital sphere.
As Mr Clifton said, “we compete for attention”. This is what the traditional industry seems to be aiming for. The attention of its “customers”, as Mr Clifton defines the readers. Is journalism in the digital era a product for customers? The presentation highlighted how at the centre of all their activities and creation of content are journalists and editors. The posture of Mr Clifton and the tone he used describing the skills needed to work for his company, plus the strict seriousness in the journalistic values entrenched in every member of PA, made
him resemble the Dickens character Mr Gradgrind.
A similar approach to news appeared in the work of Kate Forbes of the BBC. She spoke about the importance of the digital space and how that can be used to reach a diversified audience. But I sense here there is nothing really ‘new’. Just the old news in new packages. And then the youngest panel member talked. Bursting with innovation, Nathaniel Barling presented his project to the public. The co-founder and CEO of Knowhere.ai spoke about something new, ambitious, and perhaps, visionary.
His platform aims to give the most objective perspective of the events happening in the globe. A system of algorithms ensures news outlets avoid bias and compromise positions by analysing a massive amount of data, and multi-sourcing information. The machines used in this process are equipped with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities able to learn new information and then process this into news copy. According to Mr Barling, the machine and, mainly, the news production will still need humans in the workflow.
Present at the conversation, there are students and lecturers, but also the longstanding Observer journalist Stephan Pritchard. Pritchard was impressed with Barling’s Knowhere.ai plans, and he said he could see the immediate benefits of it. However, he wondered about the business model that they would eventually adopt. The business model is crucial to the independence of a news outlet. An award-winning freelance journalist made an interesting point saying “Humans still programme machine” so how you ultimately avoid all bias?
When innovation strikes, a real change that threats the status quo of things, the experienced professionals tend to be sceptical, even hostile. Perhaps, they do not fully understand the possibilities offered by the new technology or are just cautious of innovative ways of doing the job they’ve always done. That might put
them in a situation where they are not the guru or gatekeeper anymore, usurped by the innovator, relegated to a mere junior in this sector.
Fear aside, it seems to me that experience and innovation must find a way of working together, complementing each other, instead of generating endless, and probably fruitless, generational conflict. It requires a bold spirit of humanity in the present to deliver a bright future for journalism. That takes strength and courage.