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'Robots Will Not Replace Journalists’: In Conversation With Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network

GEN Summit Vienna 2017
GEN Summit Vienna 2017(photo: Martin Hoermandinger)

It’s funny how anachronisms can stick. Microsoft Word’s ‘save’ button still uses a floppy disk icon, vinyl has made a triumphant comeback, and if you Google the word ‘journalist’, your results will still be dominated by images of men in trilby hats with a little piece of paper tucked into the band.

The news industry has, however, come a long way since the days of rushing into a telephone box to call an editor. Rapid technological advancements and the increasing popularity of AI have affected newsrooms enormously over the past 10 years, bringing both challenges and rewards to those journalists learning to adapt.

Nobody knows this better than Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the GEN, (Global Editors Network) with whom we launched Live Desk in 2012: the precursor to our open-source platform Live Blog. Ahead of the 2018 GEN Summit 'Towards the Augmented Newsroom' this week, (30th May-1st June) we spoke to Mr Pecquerie about the talks he’s anticipating, what the newsroom of the future might look like and which technology journalists should be keeping tabs on:

With 100 speakers at this year’s summit, which talks or sessions are you most looking forward to, and why?

I decided in September 2017 to set up sessions on machine learning, blockchain and Voice AI, and for some GEN board members it was too futuristic, not enough “hands on” for editors-in-chief struggling every day for finding new resources through new storytelling methods. Nevertheless, I could convince a majority of my board because the news industry did not properly anticipate three major disruptions: the web, then mobile, and the dominance of platforms.

A new disruption is on the horizon with AI. Again publishers, editors and journalists are not anticipating the rate of adoption or underestimating the impact of this technology shift. [...] So, the goal of the May 2018 conference is to create an AI literacy movement among the news communities and to prepare media (and especially legacy media) for this fourth disruption in 25 years.

With the GEN summit’s focus on the future of journalism, what are your own predictions for newsrooms of the future?

We’ll be seeing artificial intelligence incorporated into workflows a great deal more than we have before: it can lighten the workload for journalists in terms of mundane, repetitive tasks. But robots will not replace journalists!

Urbs media, an AI news agency based in the UK, for example, is using artificial intelligence to help local news. In their model, human reporters write stories based on data sets (particularly those that are often forgotten about) and natural language processing is then used to create many different versions of a story based on this data: for example, the tech can automatically create an article about rising crime rates in Paris and falling crime rates in Lille. This has the capacity to strengthen local news. [...]

The setup of the newsroom itself will also be different: there’ll be people working only on immersive tech, for example, just as we currently have people working solely as social media editors. Each reporter will have to do many things at once: copyediting, researching, social media etc.

Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network

Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network

It sounds like some of these changes could be quite drastic. What do you think are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for journalism as the industry evolves?

News and entertainment media are moving more closely together as a result of companies like Snapchat and Facebook, meaning that users see less of a distinction between the two. Newsrooms therefore need to dedicate more staff and time to new tech, such as AR and VR, to stay on top of how we might be telling stories in the future. [...]

But with immersive tech come great challenges regarding ethics: How close do readers really need to be to the story? Can this lead to increased subjectivity, which in turn, leads to bias?

Is there any other technology you think journalists should be watching very closely? Why?

Newsrooms need to think about voice so they don’t lose out like they did during the mobile revolution: there are already over 400 million Google Assistant devices across the globe right now, meaning more and more people will be getting their news from voice assistants.

[...] Journalists need to see which type of voice works, where the medium is appropriate, and avoid blunders that make the voice experience frustrating.

Blockchain is another (very hyped up) technology journalists need to keep an eye on. Everyone is talking about it, but not everybody understands it. Blockchain, for example, can be very useful for freelance journalists who have little control over their own rights. The smart contract embedded in the blockchain can allow a journalist to specify if their article is free to use or if a publisher that has a circulation of over a certain amount has to pay for it. It will be also helpful for fact-checking news.

Going back to basics, what’s the best piece of journalism you’ve ever read?

I liked ‘Snowfall’ from the New York Times, but now analysts are saying it’s outdated. I don’t think so, I think it’s just a good storytelling method from before the rise of social media.

And if you’d never got into the industry at all, what career would you be in instead?

A history professor, as I was 25 years ago. [...] I’d focus on storytelling methods from the 18th Century. Media archaeology will help us to understand the future of news.