Bloomberg’s Micklethwait: ‘Future of news to be more digital, personalised, automated, paid for’
How are personalisation and automation going to influence the work of newsrooms? What is their expected impact on democracy and audiences? Which business model will prove to be sustainable for news organisations? Bloomberg’s Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait answered our questions on what the future of news is going to be made of, and how Bloomberg is already tackling it.
GEN: News providers are getting better at targeting people. Do you see a future where news organisations are no longer writing for a mass audience, but catering to a fragmented audience on an individual level?
John Micklethwait: I think the delivery of news will get even more targeted. But I still believe a newsroom’s first job is to reflect the world as we see it based on our reporting, rather than tailoring the reporting to suit the audience. Our approach means introducing readers to topics and stories they may not know they’re interested in yet. Yes, consumers will be able to set their own parameters: give me all the news about x or y. But I think they will still also want to know what we think is important.
What are the effects of personalisation of news on democracy? How does one solve the contradiction between personalised news and the filter bubble effect, as defined by Eli Pariser?
I’m worried that echo chambers are being created where consumers only get news with a particular political spin. And Pariser is right to worry about the self-reinforcing nature of search engines giving you what you want. But there is now a much greater variety of news than ever before. Not everybody in New York agrees with, say, Fox news, but plenty of conservative Americans do. That is a third of the country — and they did not have that choice until relatively recently. Really big news tends to jump across all sorts of political barriers. There is a challenge to all editors: we need to keep some of the serendipity of print and lure readers out of their echo chambers.
Can a successful business model be built around personalisation?
It is interesting. We all thought that personalisation would be one of the defining parts of success in the news business, but it hasn’t quite happened that way yet. People still value the serendipity of news. They still like a general package. But I think we can personalise, more especially with newsletters: it’s useful to find out how well your stocks are doing, what the weather is like in the city where you live and how well your soccer team is doing.
Does Bloomberg mention that an article is “automated/algorithm-based” or do you consider it is transparent for the user or that he doesn’t care?
Transparency is essential and our readers certainly do care. All stories that are produced using our automated news technology either have a byline (“By Bloomberg Automation”) or a tag line (“with assistance from Bloomberg Automation”). We also provide an e-mail address for immediate feedback and questions.
Does the rise of automated content place a burden on democracy if it is not only related to financial or sports news? In other terms, do you believe that pure automated newsrooms will challenge classical newsrooms in the future, as it will be a cheaper way to get news?
I don’t think there will ever be a purely automated newsroom. You need journalists and editors to make decisions. The biggest gains we have seen so far have come from computers and humans working together. Investing in automation and technology does give us an advantage in that we can more quickly identify the “what” of a story — a sudden stock move, or highlighting key earnings or economic information — which allows our journalists to focus on adding value by answering the “why” of an event. So, rather than a replacement, it’s a complement to the future newsroom.
I don’t see any sign of a threat to democracy from automation. Perhaps the reverse. For instance, other outlets such as The Washington Post have created localised election feeds. Using automation, they report results on districts they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to cover, much as we and The Associated Press do with smaller companies and their earnings. So if anything, these advancements enhance democracy by making information like this more readily available.
You say there are big holes in local journalism. How can automation, personalisation or other new technological developments strengthen local reporting? In other terms, is news innovation a privilege of big media organisations?
I think the problem for democracy in terms of local journalism has to do with the business model, not technology per se. Local newspapers, which relied on advertising, don’t have the resources to commit to investigative journalism. Democracy is not dying in darkness in Washington, DC. There are lots of news outlets aggressively pursuing national news. But at the local level, politicians are less likely to be investigated now.
New technology is actually helping newsrooms, large and small. Open source software and the use of programming languages like Python and R are actually free. Local journalists can use data journalism tools too. You don’t have to be a Bloomberg or The New York Times to do this. As an example, look at Argentina’s La Nacion’s use of marine-traffic data during its live coverage of the search for signals from a missing submarine.
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After more than six months of implementation, what is the main outcome of TicToc, the Bloomberg’s news network on Twitter that tries to verify what’s real and reduce fake news?
Social media can be very chaotic and cluttered with too much personal commentary and speculation. There are next generation news consumers who value speed, but want clear, verified global news they can trust.
TicToc by Bloomberg, which we launched last December streaming on Twitter and now has more than 420,000 followers, strives to be a signal in the noise that you can trust. We have one of the most global newsrooms with journalists in 120 countries. We hope that the fact that TicToc is “verified” by Bloomberg’s journalists will help it win an audience of people focused on the facts.
Legacy media — such as The New York Times, Bertelsmann, Le Monde, Gruppo L’Espresso, etc — were fierce opponents of platforms (Google, Facebook…) eight years ago and now they seem their best allies. How do you analyse this shift? Is there a risk that this new alliance will kill innovation and the emergence of new competitors?
I think one interesting consequence of the main news organisations embracing paywalls as the way forward has been that they are much less reliant on advertising and, thus, more independent of the platforms. We’re seeing news organisations exercise more caution and skepticism around partnerships with platforms. At Bloomberg, we have tended only to do partnerships in a selective and strategic way. When we launched TicToc by Bloomberg, we partnered with Twitter because it’s arguably the world’s largest general news company and because it was committed to an equitable relationship with us.
A few months ago, you said that “News is an industry in transition, not in decline.” Are you on the same line today? What are the risks and opportunities facing the news industry in 2019?
I’m optimistic about the future of news. It’s reemerging as something more digital, more personalised, more automated, more paid for — and (eventually) less fake. In many ways, history is repeating itself, with the main surprise being the survival of so many established news organizations. Though they have to work harder to keep their audiences, the good news is that quality journalism is coming back. Serious journalism still does matter and does have the power to change lives. Ultimately, the big winner is the consumer.
The question is related to this article that ranks Bloomberg #13 out of #38: Are you disappointed to see Bloomberg at the 13th rank (46,3%) in the Simmons Research survey about trust in media brands?
We’re extremely proud of our journalists and the high-quality journalism they produce around the world. Surveys are always interesting, but there are other ways of measuring quality: people pay more to get Bloomberg than any other news in the world.
John Micklethwait is the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg where he oversees editorial content across all Bloomberg platforms, including its news, newsletters, magazines, opinion, television, radio and digital properties, as well as its research services including Bloomberg Intelligence. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Economist. John Micklethwait will be a keynote speaker at the GEN Summit 2019, 19–21 June 2019 in Lisbon.