The future of news is not about human journalists

The theme for Engage, IAB UK’s flagship digital conference was ‘Create the Future,’ showcasing the latest developments and innovation within the digital advertising industry, its implications and what marketers need to know now in order to succeed tomorrow.

True to fashion, the event excited and inspired the crowd, made up of more than 1,000 attendees. The most powerful came from Ken Fawes, editor-in-chief of the Cincinnati Sentinel, whose publication employed controversial storytelling techniques – using complex algorithms and machine learning – to create and distribute stories to discredit democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in favour of republican Donald Trump in the now infamous 2016 US presidential election.

Influencing an election

He outlined his vision of the future of news; one that doesn’t include human journalism, where news brands will only survive if they pivot their entire businesses around speed, efficiency and scale. It will be a world where AI can learn and be programmed to do anything a human can do, but better. Fawes went on to criticise mainstream news outlets for their reliance on "overtly biased and outdated human journalism, rather than smarter, more efficient, technology-based storytelling."

The Sentinel’s custom-built influencer algorithm identified a story that linked Clinton with voter fraud in Kentucky, a neighbouring state to Ohio. Their optimiser engine forecasted a 400% increase in site views if the state’s name was changed from Kentucky to Ohio. At the same time, an in-house image sourcing platform found five photographs of Ohio warehouses for Fawes to approve. With a quick swipe on his mobile to confirm, the story went live instantaneously and within 15 minutes, "traffic exploded," according to Fawes, "without a journalist writing a single word". Citing stats from a priority measurement tool, Fawes said The Sentinel’s influencer index ranked 27% higher than any other website or social media network in the US.

Noting that news is "out there, everywhere," Fawes said the role of publishers is to make advertisers happy, which is done by curating content and customising elements based on audience, combining influence and scale.

Outing fake news

Before he could continue, a man in the audience interrupted, claiming both Fawes and The Sentinel as fakes. Ken Fawes was merely an actor, his name an anagram of Fake News. That man was David Walsh, chief sports writer at The Sunday Times, whose 13-year investigative journalism detailed now-disgraced cyclists Lance Armstrong’s substance abuse. 

Three months after Trump first proclaimed mainstream media as fake, 93,000 subscribers signed up for The New York Times, which saw a 46% increase in revenue

For the next 20 minutes, Walsh spoke emotionally, passionately and inspiringly on why real, human journalism and quality news are so important. Walsh’s story – in the face of lawsuits and hate mail – ended with the revelation of the truth. "If you want to find the truth, serious newspapers and serious journalism will have a role to play in the future."

The problem with fake news

Today, anyone can publish content online without going through credible checks. Fake news is being weaponised, making it hard for people to distinguish between fact and fake. An IAB/YouGov report shows that 92% of people are aware of fake news and that 75% wouldn’t trust an ad on fake news sites.

Three months after Trump first proclaimed mainstream media as fake, 93,000 subscribers signed up for The New York Times, which saw a 46% increase in revenue. People understood they needed to have a news source they could trust in the face of alternative facts. 

 "Democracy dies in the darkness"
The Washington Post

But profit isn’t what journalism is about. It’s about uncovering truths. Journalists provide powerful feedback loops from those who govern to the readers; they aren’t afraid to tackle tough subjects and raise crucial social issues. This year alone, 27 journalists died uncovering stories that powerful people didn’t want told.

Clare Rush, chief revenue officer at Mail Advertising, detailed why it’s important for advertisers and agencies to support the newspapers that invest in real, quality journalism. "Journalism is the cornerstone of democracy," she said. Newspapers reach 90% of the UK population each month and 17 million unique readers per day. Real journalism is carried out by real people asking awkward questions and exposing the truth.  

The Washington Post once said: "Democracy dies in the darkness." Rush added: "We shine light. But in order to shine light, someone needs to pay for our batteries."

Tim Elkington, chief digital officer at the IAB, said: "News brands are important IAB members. We wanted to give them a big platform at Engage, so they could come together to achieve a common goal."

He went on to say: "Our objective is to support journalism. The idea for the session started around eight months ago. Our publisher members wanted to tackle fake news but recognised they couldn’t fix it on their own. We gave them a collaborative voice and together, we put a real face to the issue of fake news and built up a believable, yet extreme persona to show the audience how easy it is to be taken in by a fake. And like good journalism, we created a story that stirred emotion."

Elkington added: "While the Ken Fawes that spoke at Engage was an actor, somewhere in the world is a real Ken Fawes. We all have a role to play. Human journalism isn't going away and needs to be supported."