Opinion

Two ways the machines can evolve the news media business

It’s time to peer beyond the deprecation of cookies and find out what tech’s really going to look like in a few years - and what this means for the free press we know and love. Ahead of his appearance at Advertising Week APAC, Outbrain’s Masahiro (Max) Ueno takes a look into the crystal ball.

Blade Runner predicted that in 2019, we would have cyborgs so realistic they would challenge everything we know and think about ourselves.

True, it’s now 2022 and there’s not a single cyborg in sight (unless they’ve skipped straight to lifelike models), but pretty much every single discussion of the future now includes some iteration of more advanced artificial intelligence (AI). This future is not a fiction or a movie, it is an onrushing reality. 

The deprecation of third party cookies promises another wave of technological evolution peeking around the corner. And it’s a safe bet that AI, machine learning, deep learning and micropayments are going to be defining characteristics of what this next evolution in tech is going to look like.

For the news media industry in particular, new technology offers a valuable opportunity to come out ahead of the curve and better establish the industry for the future. If we play our cards right, these innovations may be the key to solving persistent problems that have dogged the industry for years, such as higher costs and expenses, as well as falling revenue.

In terms of higher costs, the move to online news (with audiences now accustomed to reading everything for free) has left a financial hole and created a need to generate much larger volumes of content. 

These factors mean newsrooms are under immense pressure to create more journalism than ever before for more readers than they’ve ever had, whilst juggling the fact that money is tighter than it has been in the past.  

But this is where digitisation can be a boon, offering publishers the chance to monetise their offerings and free up more time for journalists.

Take a natural disaster, which unfortunately, we’re seeing a bit too often these days. A custom piece of AI can already create a brief article with the basic facts of the event – time, location, severity, and so on. To me, this is an extremely powerful application of technology that can lower the higher costs news media businesses face. It is absolutely essential that news outlets publish this information quickly and accurately – but is it a waste of a journalist’s time if they’re the ones required to write these basic stories? The same goes for other one-fact stories like stock market moves, where millions of people-hours are currently consumed churning out important, but basic, informational pieces.

It’s important to get the facts out there, but by adopting this technology news outlets can free up their most valuable resources, their journalists, to get out in the field and talk to people on the ground. Humans talking to other humans and creating a more nuanced understanding of the situation is the most powerful form of journalism and will create more differentiation in a crowded news market. It’s something that no piece of tech is capable of, even advanced tech like GPT3 which is able to write like people. 

This technology is also starting to have an impact on the monetisation side of the publishing equation, giving publishers a chance to increase revenue.

Despite the vast array of tech solutions available to publishers it can be easy to lump them all in the same basket and think they’re interchangeable. Any company looking to employ machine learning needs to think deeply about the technology powering their business and understand the subtle differences in different platforms. By utilising a diverse mix they can actually create much better outcomes for their advertising partners.   

Take, for example, deep learning technology, which you may think is interchangeable with machine learning. However, deep learning is a more complex piece of tech, and is modelled on the human brain.

Machine learning, on the other hand, refers to computers learning from data, and performing tasks without being explicitly programmed. Humans are able to tweak parameters around machine learning, while deep learning has an engine that can learn from itself. Either of these technologies can be useful when it comes to recommended articles, ensuring readers are provided a highly personalised and relevant experience online.

These technologies can affect the ways publishers price and list inventory – the systems ‘think’ differently so offer a wider range of solutions. It allows publishers to diversify their revenue streams, and better monetise what they offer. 

But if you’re not quite onboard with AI or machine / deep learning just yet, don’t worry. While it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these innovations, there are plenty of other opportunities for publishers to make use of new tech to better monetise the news model. This is where micropayments come into play.

Just think back to a time when, on your morning commute, you would buy your regular newspaper from the newsstand and see a paper you didn’t usually get with a blazing ‘exclusive’ in black block letters screaming for you to buy that too. You could buy that newspaper for a couple of dollars to satisfy your curiosity.

But if the only option for purchasing that newspaper was to pay for all its editions for a month, you probably wouldn’t have bothered, right? That’s what the current subscription model looks like, but I believe audiences may be better served by micropayments, allowing readers to purchase an online story for a few cents with no obligation to subscribe for a longer duration.

This isn’t exactly creating a custom-built piece of AI to cover stock market news, but it’s just one way new tech can help publishers rethink current monetisation methods whilst boosting revenue.

Most of us were caught unawares during the big tech jumps of the past, but with the crumbling of the cookie, we have a chance to be prepared. For news media, it’s a chance to come out ahead of the pack and set a standard for everyone else to follow. 

Progress happens in the blink of an eye – so keep your eyes wide open. 

Outbrain’s MD in Japan, Masahiro (Max) Ueno

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