That thing about AI…

We knew that AI would be the overarching strategic topic of this edition of Congress, but I didn’t expect a near standing-room-only “workshop” right out of the gate, at 9 a.m.

Normally that is a time reserved for smaller side sessions and workshops before the full opening kicks off later in the day. Yet, Fergus Bell and Tom Trewinnard kicked off the first in-person Fathm/WAN-IFRA “AI Unlocked” initiative workshop to a very engaged packed room. And the first part was dedicated to the “basics of AI.” Before long, Fathm had attendees pow-wowing and building things, like integrating process maps into their business with a simple flow chart process model.

The Zetland story never gets old

A mad dash across the lobby, and a bit late, was the true standing-room-only session dedicated to WAN-IFRA’s Stars4Media initiative (good job, Stephen Fozard!) and a large portion of that focused on reader revenue, the other strategic topic stealing the attention from news execs here.

Tav Klitgaard, CEO of Zetland in Copehagen, gave the keynote sharing the always-fascinating story of how this small news organisation has grown its membership to 40,000, thanks to its long-form journalism. And to knowing exactly what their audience wants: 80% want to listen to their articles vs. reading them. I visited Zetland’s office 5-6 years ago, when they were just starting out. It was the funkiest “newsroom” I had visited. They were producing ONE STORY a day at that time, giving new meaning to “less is more.” Looks like they knew what they were doing.

From journalists to war reporters overnight

Then to the “Media in Ukraine” session, where I heard journalist (and experienced war reporter) Katerina Sergatskova tell the harrowing but inspiring story of how she experienced the first night of bombings in Kyiv. How the first month of the invasion was the deadliest, also for journalists, colleagues, friends. How it inspired her and her husband, also a journalist, to make it their mission to train journalists to protect themselves in war zones. They co-founded Zaborona Media and 2402 Foundation and train journalists on everything from first aid response, to digital security, mine safety, risk assessment, safety culture for organisations, down to mental health and resilience skills.

“We started helping 20 people with vests and helmets. Now we have the most intensive safety training program in media and non-profit sector in the world so far,” she said.

Getting back to basics

I listened in on Ulrik Haagerup, Founder and CEO at the Constructive Institute in Denmark, talk about how the world around us has become so polarised and how journalism has followed that trend, particularly in the US.

It was a session dedicated to Constructive Journalism, and Ulrik, in his always brutally honest way, pleaded with the room to reconsider our core values and produce content that offers solutions, true nuance and sparks open conversation. “That is the journalism of tomorrow – today.”

He’s just friendly Fernando to us

At the official opening of the Congress, it was moving to see outgoing WAN-IFRA President Fernando de Yarza López-Madrazo talk about the state of the industry, the palpable passion he demonstrated when characterising the crucial role of an independent, free press during these daunting times. He will be missed as our President but will continue to thrive in his everyday role as President of Henneo media group in Spain. And he is leaving the WAN-IFRA presidency in good hands, with Ladina Heimgartner, Head of Ringier Media & CEO at Ringier Switzerland, taking the reins.

Back to AI…

Ezra Eeman has become a go-to source on the daunted task of trying to crystallise the development of generative AI and its impact on news media.

He took another stab at that during an afternoon keynote, also standing-room only. And this version of his always straight-to-the-point presentations could have easily been titled, “AI – The Reality Check.” Sobering.

I would not do Ezra justice to try to sum up his comprehensive presentation in a couple of graphs so here is a link to his transcript, but here a few nuggets to ponder.

To illustrate the crazy pace of AI development, he started by showing this:

“This map represents the AI landscape in 2024 – it was released in March and was outdated as soon as it came out. Let’s admit it. No one can really keep up anymore. The speed of product launches and technological evolutions is unprecedented and perhaps overheated,” Eeman said.

“The fact is most new AI tools are barely out of the research lab,” he continued. “New models are presented as production-ready when they aren’t, or they launch without proper vetting. AI is being packaged for enterprises, but these offerings often fail to justify their price tags or meet our collective expectations.”

But despite all that, he acknowledged the hard work publishers have been doing, and to not forget that AI has been around in the industry for a while now. However, with what is coming up, publishers should seek new ways to leverage Generative AI to bring value into their readers’ lives every day.

OpenAI opens up?

Then it was OpenAI’s turn to take the stage. Varun Shetty, Head of Media Partnerships, made the case that news publishers can absolutely benefit from OpenAI’s tools and that the company itself can absolutely benefit from working with news publishers.

On the business model side, he said: OpenAI is subscription based, and that it will stay like that, i.e. no advertising unlike Google or Meta.

Not surprisingly, Shetty faced some sticky questions from the audience about OpenAI’s involvement with news publishers:

What are some of principles behind OpenAI’s negotiations (payment deals) with publishers?
How will publishers benefit from OpenAI search?

Some he could not answer for various legal/confidentiality reasons. The latter: he said OpenAI believes the traffic it will drive to publishers’ sites would be a big benefit.

Carlos Chamorro’s Golden hour

The final session of the day was the Golden Pen of Freedom ceremony, which was awarded to Carlos Chamorro of Nicaragua.

“I am deeply honoured to receive the Golden Pen of Freedom 2024 award from the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at a time when freedom of the press and freedom of expression are under brutal attack in my country Nicaragua, while there is a process of criminalisation of independent journalism in several other countries of Latin America. It is an honour that I receive together with my colleagues of Confidencial, who make it possible for us to continue doing quality journalism in exile; and I share it with all the independent media from Nicaragua, whose resistance also in exile, represents the last reserve of freedom under a totalitarian dictatorship.”

His story, like so many laureates before him, is one of courage, holding those to power accountable under brutal circumstances, exile, sadness, inspiration, and, ultimately, yes, reward. Read more about him here and read his full acceptance speech here.

Good night and good luck

I did not make it to the Gala Dinner last night. I was writing this! But it is definitely worth mentioning that our 2024 World Digital Media Award winners were honoured at the event. Read more about that here.

All in all, the day captured what every first day of the now 16 Congresses I have attended: the full spectrum of why we work in this wacky business – we simply love it.

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