GEN Summit studies the “Augmented” Newsroom

A hybrid of new platforms, technologies and methods

David Ho taught the audience how integral phones have become to our identity by asking them to unlock their devices and hand it to their neighbors in the audience. — ©Photos: Rainer Mirau for GEN

In today’s changing newsroom you’ll find the “traditional” group of journalist producing one type of content for one type of outlet at one end and at the other end the “augmented” newsroom that uses an ever-growing number of platforms, methods and technologies to publish.

Today’s talks gave us the latest chapter on how AI, automation, mobile, desktop and Social Media redefine the roles and responsibilities of newsroom members.

At the bottom of the article we have listed our previous coverage of mobile opportunities, but now let us dive into the advice and warnings of those driving the “augmentation” of the newsroom.

The new era of the Mobile Content news desk

“Mobile is not the future, mobile is here” could sum up “Rebooting your newsroom for the smartphone age”, the session led by David Ho, Vice President and Executive Editor, Hearst Newspapers.

Ho, Anne Kerloc’h, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, 20 Minutes France and Mandy Jenkins, Head of News, Storyful © Photos for GEN

Having followed the mobile news evolution over nearly a decade Ho summed up trends, behaviour and patterns in a fast-paced and humorous Top 10 Tips for running a mobile news desk. They add up to a paradigm change where mobile becomes the dominant concern in the newsroom.

Rule 1: Mobile-friendly webpages are a necessity

Rule 2: You should have a news app, too

Rule 3: The one-platform world is dead

The discussion is no longer on the necessity of ensuring your website is presentable, practical and user-friendly on every platform. Despite this Ho still hears stories of older editors having a revelation of near religious magnitude when they realise that everyone on their morning train is buried in their phones.

Many in the newsroom have had the idea of a digital presence beaten into them warns Ho, making them hesitant or resistant to see it as anything more than an add-on or an alternative platform for publishing content.

The news strategy must respect and utilise all platforms as separate tools with differing strengths and weaknesses. And to make sure you engage in the world of notifications we live in now. If you don’t want to be buried and forgotten you have to make sure your users know that you still exist and produce content for them on their preferred outlet type.

Rule 4: News is an experience and the device is part of the story

Rule 5: Mobile is social, social is mobile

Ho says that mobile involves the users in a much more direct way than a print paper or a desktop website ever will: “Sending news to mobile is sending it directly to peoples’ lives, it’s a very personal engagement.” If you forget to take this into account you will appear clumsy or intrusive.

You must create a relationship with your users, where you question them and deliver on their requests. If not they will create a relationship with another content provider.

Rule 6: You need the right mobile team

Rule 7: If graphic doesn’t work on a phone, it doesn’t work

Rule 8: The real mobile first: Plan, think, see mobile at the start of every effort

Rule 9: Need for speed: In the mobile age we are all wire services

You have to start thinking of mobile as the starting point and everything else as an add-on, often the opposite view of current newsrooms. The amount of time people engaged with online content on mobile has overtaken the time spent on desktop content. As Ho points out, the only time people are still consistently choosing desktop access is during work hours ,“when people are busy at work not doing their jobs.”

Having a team that understands the flexible and instant nature of mobile content is a must. A wire service mentality is vital about instant updating. You can’t set a deadline for six o’clock in the evening and hope your users will have the patience to wait.

As with production style, graphic style has to be made from the start with mobile publishing in mind, because it is easier to ensure a picture or video works on all platforms from the start than to re-upload them in slightly different versions several times over. Again it is also an emotional engagement as Ho points out: “News has to be beautiful because it is a battle for time. There are a thousand other things to do on your phone that is enjoyable or entertaining. Why would users choose to struggle with your ugly product?”

But a major challenge will be discovery. Users are not likely to simply stumble on your app or even realise you have a mobile version of your website. You must be proactive and make it clear that your users have another option.

Rule 10: Beyond the screen is dimensional storytelling

The last and most important tip is the busting of the biggest myth in the industry: that mobile equals short, when in fact mobile equals relevant. There is an old thinking of news existing in a 2D plane as it did when print was the only option. Now you have to engage with your users not just in terms of serving them information in an easy way, it has to be tailored to your exact target audience, making them feel that their unique needs as a group or community have been taken into consideration.

A point Ho uses to rounds off his talk: “Tech is meaningless without the humanity that gives it purpose.”

Artificial Intelligence in the newsroom

In the Masterclass “Is your newsroom ready for artificial intelligence?” Lisa Gibbs, Global Business Editor & Automation co-lead, The Associated Press and Francesco Marconi, Strategy Manager & Automation co-lead, The Associated Press gave a step-by-step explanation of the process and challenges of creating an AI strategy for your newsroom.

© Photos by: Rainer Mirau for GEN

The step is to analyse which parts and methods of AI fits your organisation the best. You will have to know the difference between automation and augmentation, and between AI content and processes.

Marconi gave examples of how the AP office has adopted both automated and augmented journalism and the different results they give. It is often close to a classic quantity versus quality comparison.

Automation creates simple, repeatable templates that humans can feed clean crisp data into allowed the AP to grow from covering 300 corporate earnings stories over a few weeks every quarter to producing 3700 automated stories in the same period. They in essence became publishers of AI content and in the interest of transparency gave their robots official bylines.

Large projects can require continuous updating, customisation and maintenance. It is also important to note that AI only works as well as the data it is fed by the journalists and is not error proof, though as Gibbs pointed out: “overall machines have a slightly lower error rate than human writers, for example due to them not being able to make spelling or math errors.”

To assuage questions from the audience about automation threatening jobs Gibbs was very clear: “We have not decreased our staff by a single employee, it was certainly possible to lower costs that way, but we had very clear communication about the situation to avoid confusion and only used it to remove low impact tasks.”

Reversely, augmented content is machines allowing journalists to discover hidden insights in large datasets generate new versions of the same story over different platforms and transcribe interviews in real time.

Once you have decided which approaches to take you must either build the tools yourselves or partner with someone providing specialised solutions. Often you will have to marry process with experimentation in order to find which upgrade works best for your outlet. A miscalculation at this step can be incredibly wasteful and costly.

Gibbs made clear to highlight the practical aspects of considering new technology: “It is fun to think about the opportunities, but not cheap or easy. Adopting new technology is always slow and scary, but it will spread down, from big organisations to smaller ones.”

Other key editorial concerns are workflow disruptions, database maintenance and cost, employing automation editors and having your team learn branch writing i.e. how to customise their content differently for each platform or code base.

What constitutes an “augmented” news team?

Here is an incomplete list of some of the “must-have” new roles we have heard throughout the conference that an augmented newsroom requires:

• Automation editor

• Data Safety expert

• Ethics Officer

• Mobile editor

• Mobile Graphics Programmer

• Database maintenance officer

• VR editor

• VR photographer

• Social Media Guru

• Engineers (endless variations and specialisations)

We can’t verify the minimum number and roster of roles needed to provide a complete “augmented” coverage at the current moment.

Watch GEN Summit panel: It’s raining bots: Four best practices to make the most of automation