News CEOs Talk Of Headwinds In Biz As AI, Misinformation And Audience Avoidance Challenge Traditional Media

Just about any CEO panel these days will inevitably reach the topic of artificial intelligence, and today’s NewFront sit down with the leaders of five major news organizations was no exception.

But it was CNN Worldwide CEO Mark Thompson who warned of what was at stake.

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“If we get it wrong, we’ll get disintermediated, and people will get our stuff one way or the other in the way that AI companies have scraped everything we have ever done anyway, and they will provide it in other ways and our businesses will collapse,” Thompson said. “If we get it right, it could be a golden age of news experiences for people in this country and around the world.”

Thompson talked of AI being used as a way where people can find content “easier and quicker.”

AI was among a number of challenges that the CEOs addressed at the event.

Thompson also elaborated on what CNN is aiming to do in digital, as he has previously outlined in a strategy memo. “I don’t think anyone has built a great video-led news product, and we want to build that. We have hundreds of millions of views of vertical video. But many younger people find it on TikTok and YouTube. And most news websites kind of look like they are in the newspaper tradition. So what does a true, video-led news product look like?”

As politics has gotten more polarizing, advertisers have gotten more skittish about placing spots next to controversial content.

Thompson and others talked of a more expansive definition of what news is, noting that “all of us to some extent, certainly on the broadcast side, [have made] the mistake in recent years of getting overassociated with divisive politics and some very tough issues.”

“News is life. It’s about everything,” Thompson said. “It’s about Cowboy Carter. It’s popular culture. Sport.”

“I think there’s something about not being too narrow in our own perception of what news is,” he said. “I think our audiences are more broad-minded than we are some times, and I think our advertisers are more broad minded.”

Meredith Kopit Levien, the CEO of The New York Times Co., said, “I think we all have the same business challenge of, ‘Can we make products so good that people at great scale are going to seek them out and ask for them by name and make room for them in their daily lives however the information ecosystem evolves, period? That is the business challenge.” She, too, talked of the Times efforts to draw people in through new avenues, including Wordle and other puzzles and other content like shopping advice.

Deborah Turness, CEO of BBC News, said “Our greatest competitor is news avoidance. I think we live in a polarized world with divisive politics and culture wars. Add to that a couple of massive wars, real wars. And you have that kind of toxic mix and people are starting to move away from news.” She talked of moves to build up more lifestyle and culture coverage, as well as podcasts and long-form documentaries.

The dispersal of younger audiences to new forms has posed a particularly vexing problem. NPR CEO Katherine Maher said, “You’re starting to see a real transition generationally away from major brand identities into niche services, especially with younger people, who are relying on much more personality driven news.” That has left larger entities “thinking about what does it mean to actually differentiate ourselves relative to the business, and what is that value proposition. It’s requiring all of us to be significantly more agile than we have been in the past.”

Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, said, “I think we are in an era where misinformation and disinformation is proliferating. I think it’s being exacerbated by so many technologies. So that is clearly a headwind. The fact that we are seeing such a massive change in how our consumers are wanting to engage and consume news and information, that’s a real change for all of us.” The network has invested heavily in areas like NBC News Now, which has an average age in the 35-40 range, a whole generation younger than linear, he said.

Yet despite the proliferation of content, from social media to podcasts, the CEOs also talked of standing out as trustworthy sources of information.

Conde added, “I think in a world where audiences are going to be inundated with so much information, news from so many places … I think this dynamic will increase, which is they are going to gravitate toward trusted brands, news organizations that have long records focused on accuracy, extraordinarily high standards. News organizations that invest in original journalism. I think we will continue to see that trend of audiences looking and seeking out those trusted brands.”

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