I’m at The FIPP World Media Congress in Portugal… I know, I know. It’s a tough gig, but someone has to do it.

This is the third year in a row I’ve come to the beautiful seaside town of Cascais for this magazine media meetup and I reckon the local tourist board has missed a trick. They should have rebranded the municipal signage to read ‘Welcome to CascAIs’.

Coffee and registration seemed largely free of artificial intelligence, but after that, it has been an AI extravaganza. I half thought about playing a little drinking game, slamming a shot every time the letters A and I were mentioned together. If I’d gone for it, I’d have been hammered long before lunch.

The programme has plenty of focus on the more traditional aspects of magazine publishing – from the enduring appeal of luxury brands to readers, relationships and revenue – but AI is absolutely dominating the agenda.

From the opening keynote, Qantm AI’s CEO Dr Set Dorbin’s ‘AI iQ for a human focussed future’ , the tone was set.

Practical AI

I am not a fan of the fear mongering or the magical thinking that surrounds AI.

I won’t trust a robot to write my LinkedIn posts, never mind invest my savings. And if we’re all going to perish in the Robot Uprising, there’s very little I can do about it right now beyond stock piling canned goods.

AI to me is a tool to be used, something to make publishing better, more profitable, more sustainable.

The current conversation around AI is centered on ‘What If?’ or ‘Where Next?’ because no one really knows what the hell is going on. Even the companies that have done deals don’t actually know what those deals will end up looking like.

So I was cheered to hear Dr Jon Roberts, CIO at Dotdash Meredith, talk as much about DDM’s underlying publishing strategy as he did about its deal with OpenAI.

Roberts’ starting point wasn’t the May 2024 partnership announcement, but about how AI will benefit DDM’s publishing operations. “This isn’t a talk about AI. It’s a talk about publishing and how AI fits into it now and in the future as we see it.”

With a whistle-stop tour through the lessons DDM has learned from decades of digital missteps and testing the old model to destruction, Roberts described following a content-first strategy, delivering “old-school service journalism… deeply evergreen, deeply supportive, helping people get things done”.

He flashed up DDM’s playbook for proving you can put the user first, just three bullets:

  • Fastest Sites
  • Best Content
  • No Bad Ads

It’s easy to get your head around, but hard to deliver. Content pages had to be stripped of all but essential code. And no bad ads means absolutely no bad ads, because every bad ad on your site prices down the good ones. “It’s a user first approach, right? Fast sites, great content, no bad ads. That’s the entire playbook.”

User-first AI

What’s all DDM’s user-first paybook got to do with AI, you might be asking?

The deal that DDM has done with OpenAI is structured to support the company’s established approach, including the statement of principle that AI platforms should pay publishers for their content and that content must be appropriately attributed.

Roberts sees this not just as a deal for DDM, but for all publishers. “That carries a lot of optimism for the future, if that is a standard that we’re able to put in place.”

In DDM’s agreement with OpenAI, and the broader misuse of the technology, Roberts sees an inherent motivation toward quality content. “If you feel threatened by somebody making average content at scale, we know how to answer that,  we have to make much, much better quality things.”

DDM’s deal with OpenAI is not about not using AI tools to publish and create content. “We are using it for productivity,” says Roberts. And that’s the focus of the final pillar of DDM’s deal with the AI developer – a commitment to integrate its own AI-driven ad-targeting tool called D/Cipher.

Fixing advertising  

Roberts sees the integration of AI with ad management as an opportunity to fix the ‘broken’ advertising ecosystem, currently based on cookie retargeting. “There is no such thing as cookie targeting,” he explains, “it’s only retargeting… one of the worst signals out there.”

Now, Roberts says, he knows from the content, from the page the user is on, the problem they are trying to solve. “It works fast, better.”

“This gives us an opportunity to rebuild a digital market that works for publishers and works for buyers,” he explains. “We’re now in a situation where we can understand and classify the context that we have, and use that to infer the user’s needs.”

Tomorrow’s AI agenda

The day-two agenda for the FIPP World Media Congress is every bit as AI heavy as the first. And for good reason. Off the stage, in the coffee lines and huddles, AI dominates congress chat.

Long after the powerpoints have been packed away, AI will dominate the publishing agenda. Publisher’s are equal parts terrified and excited by an industry-wide SWOT analysis dominated by weaknesses and threats, and they are desperately looking to develop new strengths and opportunities.

More presentations that take publishing rather than AI as their starting point will help.

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