What’s top of mind for today’s news leaders? Evolving at pace, finding your USP – but not burning out in the process.

Last week, we were at the Newsrewired conference in London for a day of panels and workshops about the future of digital publishing. In a world of increasing possibilities and pressures, the central question of the day was this: how can we be selective and effective at innovating? 

How do you get readers to pay for news? Will AI take our jobs? Where are the new business model opportunities? These questions and more were pored over. 

In this special collaborative episode with our friends at Journalism.co.uk, we take a look at the key themes across the day, plus some backstage interviews with; independent media consultant Isabelle Roughol, media strategy expert Lucy Kueng, The News Movement managing editor Jonathan Paterson, post-doctoral researcher Dr Bartosz Wilczek and Explainable director Kevin Donnellan.

Here are some highlights from the episode, or you can see more write-ups from sessions at Newsrewired here.

Mixed generations in the newsroom

Jane Barrett: When we look inside newsrooms, it’s hard work as well. One of my favourite challenges – and when I say challenges, it’s always a positive as well as the negative – is it’s an opportunity. That is now to think about this multi-generational newsroom.

We’ve now got up to four generations working in the same newsroom. And the four generations are really, really different; Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z. Between them they just were so different. And I love that, I love the diversity of that. I love the fact that we bring different skills, different approaches, different ideas to the table.

But it also does present a real management and leadership challenge. How do we keep these communities together? How do we all work for that sort of North star of great independent journalism when we’re all coming at it from a slightly different angle? And some of these external issues, therefore, come into the newsroom. In a hybrid working environment, it’s even harder sometimes to, to achieve that sort of goal of everyone working together for a common for a common good.

Honesty around use of AI

Kevin Donnellan: It’s been interesting chatting to people just after the workshop that everyone’s telling me about how they’ve used AI, but not everyone is having open and honest conversations with their employer about how that is used because they’re worried that, in some instances, you’re worried about the headline of, “X publisher is using AI to…” It’s kind of scary.

We’re part of the problem as well. We can sometimes go for the scaremongering headline about how things happen. But also, it’s just very early stage experiments. And people were asking me about how that’s done.

There were worries about things like if a chatbot replaces Google as your your search engine of choice – it’s not a search engine, but if it performs the function of Google for you – how are news articles going to be recommended? So much of that is black box at the moment. And there’s no concrete answers on that. So there’s a huge degree of uncertainty for the news industry at the moment.

More collaboration is needed

Isabelle Roughol: I think we’re seeing more [collaboration], but not nearly enough. Traditionally, media is a very competitive industry, where it’s always about beating the other paper in town or wanting to get the scoop.

I’m on the board of the Public Interest News Foundation, and I work with a lot of the smaller indie entrepreneurial newsrooms, and they don’t have all the resources. Working in partnership, whether that’s for the distribution of your content or pulling forces together on reporting something, or someone who works more with the written word collaborating with a podcast production company, I think we’re seeing more and more of that.

I was told something that made an impression on me when I was a student. I entered this very competitive course, there were going to be exams at the end of two years, they were going to determine the rest of your life. And on day one, our professor said, “Look around the room. This is not your competition. Your competition is elsewhere. These are the people that you’re going to need to lean on to make it through.”

I really think as an industry, we need to start thinking a lot like this, which is, the rest of this industry is not our competition. There’s just so many more companies vying for people’s attention and time, and trying to break our democracies. And so the people in this room, the people in this industry, we need to pull together.

Rebuilding the audience relationship

Joshi Herrmann: There is paywalled content [on the Manchester Mill], so about half of what we publish is paid. So there’s clearly an incentive like that, there are stories here that I can get hold of if I pay.

People want to feel like they are backing an institution that will be good for their city. So I’ve seen people tweet about, ‘I see this as an investment in the city,’ or ‘I see it as a way of improving my local community.’ So I think a huge one is people want to do that, they want to back an institution that they think is going to make things better.

And I think the other one is, they want to feel part of something. People want to feel a bit of a connection to it. Maybe on the national level, there’s been a certain amount of distance opening up between news titles and readers because the internet has forced everyone to go for enormous scale to make money. When you go for larger scale, I think you slightly sever your relationship with readers, or you make it more difficult to have a really meaningful relationship with readers because you’re looking to get another 10 million people on your site.

What we’re trying to do is rebuild that relationship with readers. And I think people like to feel part of things; they come along to our events, they talk in the comments, there’s a sense of a community.

The must-win battles for publishers

Lucy Kueng: I think it’s really critical for the organisation, and also the people in it to know, what are the must-win battles? What are the two or three things we have to hang on to? As a leader, your job is somehow to provide that strategic clarity and steering, and with a narrative wrapped around it so it makes logical sense.

But you need to bake into that the understanding this might need to change if things continue to evolve at this pace. There are really major uncertainties out there at the moment. The two conflicts, Ukraine, the Middle East, then generative AI and for the news industry, what are the implications for that in terms of misinformation, disinformation, trust in news? There could be some kind of horrible coming together, that fundamentally destroys trust in the business as a whole!

Personally, I think the news industry, and the media industry in general, doesn’t take enough notice of the creator economy, how strong it is. If you look at any of the reports by McKinsey or Goldman Sachs on the size of the creator economy, how much attention they’re grabbing, how big those businesses are, how professional they are, something that really worries me is when the creative economy hits the news economy, what happens there?

At the moment, we’ve been protected. They’ve been very active in the ‘soft news’, entertainment, quasi-marketing space, self-help, growth, whatever, but that could really grow.

Generative AI, it really fascinates me, what is the smart response to it? There’s no point over-responding right now, because in three months, it’s going to be completely different. But you can’t afford to ignore it. So what on earth is the intelligent response right now? I guess you have to build up the capabilities, you have to flatten the organisation.

Thanks to Jacob Granger and Marcela Kunova at Journalism.co.uk for inviting us to be a part of Newsrewired. Check out the Journalism.co.uk podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud and Spotify

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