As ‘Robot Era’ Approaches, Opportunities Will Knock in Other Ways for Publishers

“Trying to compete on efficiency with robots never works, they always win.” Reading that quote on the subject of AI in journalism by Brian Morrissey, former president and EIC of Digiday, reminds me of chess bots. The latest one, Mittens the Cat, not only won 99% of its millions of games but trash talked while doing it, before being shut down. “Goodbye for now,” Mittens tweeted.

Morrissey’s quote came in an article by Sara Fischer on Axios yesterday titled Media Braces for the Robot Era. His point was that media must continue to play to its niches—music to B2B’s ears. “You’re going to have to get even more specialized as a publisher,” Morrissey said.

I was led to that story by a tweet from veteran journalist and fellow Rutgers alum S. Mitra Kalita, co-founder and CEO of URL Media and Epicenter NYC. She spoke of “the need to laser focus on audience, not traffic. Now to undo ‘the robotic behavior with which we were committing journalism; it’s questionable whether writing about National Donut Day really served anybody.’”

Last year, Kalita wrote in a similar vein, about wanting the media to be of more use: “We think people subscribe for the words we write. We are wrong. Especially during a pandemic, the need for human connectivity triumphs. Media, especially outlets rooted in geography or identity, have an opportunity to be the glue in their communities. By doing so, we also enable solutions to be found in the literal crowd and for our audiences to connect through common interests and purpose.”

Here are five strategies that publishers can employ to succeed in the “Robot Era.”

Be of more use. “At Brief, we are emphatic about placing the right people in the right jobs,” Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, told us. “We do an extensive amount of personality profiling, including looking at motivating factors. My personal number one motivating factor is altruism.” It’s clear that Green—who will speak on the CEO panel at BIMS—looks for people who want to be of more use. She shared how their investment in the success and well-being of others—from mentoring local entrepreneurs to traveling the world to eradicate disease with the Mission Rabies project—has translated into business success, including partnerships and employee satisfaction and retention.

Collaborate with outside organizations. Sarah Stonbely, research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, wrote last year about the value of newsrooms and civil society organizations teaming up. There’s no reason B2B and associations can’t reach out more in this way. “These projects are almost always topic-driven; corruption, climate change and women’s health appear to be the most common subjects. Information producers, especially journalists, can no longer rely on their content being seen via the usual channels. Collaborating with NGOs, universities [HBCUs let’s hope], data visualization shops, and others helps their content have a broader reach.” Also, there’s now a “necessity of myriad skillsets—technology, data, language and cultural considerations—that a single newsroom might not contain. Outside organizations can provide this supplementary expertise.”

Get behind a good cause. Sustainability, DEI and climate change are all huge issues today, particularly for young people—83% of millennials say it’s important that companies they buy from also align with their values, and 73% of 35-54 year olds and 60% of 55+ year olds agree. We all want to feel like we’re contributing in our own way. Data from an Axios/Harris poll found that public perception of companies is deeply impacted by how much those companies can promise a better future for society. According to the poll, companies with the most momentum included those brands putting those commitments front and center. In a Disqus survey, people said they pay for content to “support a publication’s mission and success.”

Think community not local. Kalita makes another good point: We hear so much today about the importance of local news. While that might not have previously resonated as much in B2B, remote work has changed local to communities. She points to an interview she did with Jennifer Gomez, co-founder and CMO of oneKIN, an online marketplace for retailers and entrepreneurs of color. “She told me consumers define ‘local’ differently than before, with a focus now on size and intimacy over location. Example: A friend of mine wants to only buy Christmas gifts from Black-owned small businesses; she’s happy to criss-cross the country (and internet) to find them.”

Don’t shy away from big issues—brand purpose matters. The Atlantic built on the success of Robinson Meyer’s climate change newsletter The Weekly Planet to introduce a slew of writer-driven subscriber newsletters last fall. (They have 15 now, including Dear Therapist and How to Build a Life.) Almost two-thirds of marketers “at least sometimes change the tone of an email in reaction to what’s happening around the world.” Edelman research from 2020 revealed that 65% of people surveyed stated that how a company responded to Covid-19 would have a huge impact on their likelihood to buy the brand in the future. At BIMS we’ll hear from Hebba Youssef of Workweek, the next iteration of a writer- (or Creator- as they frame it) driven company.

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