That is from Andrew Morse, the president and publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) in Georgia, USA. More than a year into his new job, Morse is guiding the 155-year-old newspaper through a phase of investment and growth. Prior to joining the AJC, he served as Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer for CNN Worldwide, and as the Head of CNN+.

Morse participated in a panel discussion at the World News Media Congress, led by Lucy Kueng, Strategic Advisor, Author & Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. He was joined by Kristin Skogen Lund, then CEO of Schibsted in Norway, and Alex Hardiman, Chief Product Officer at The New York Times. 

With numerous topics addressed in this comprehensive session, we will feature separate Q&As from the panel in the coming weeks, starting with Morse. Naturally, the discussion began with – what else – AI.

[Editor’s note: Q&A was edited for clarity and length.]

Kueng: John Ridding (CEO of The Financial Times who spoke earlier that day) talked about the industry being at a defining moment, and what’s pushing us into that defining moment is clearly generative AI, generative search. What is your take on these developments? Are we looking at an extinction event, which some people are talking about, or is this simply another very significant challenge the industry has to master?

Morse: I wonder if you look back at 1466, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, if everybody who was in the publishing industry at the time said this is an extinction event, or when Samuel Morse sent his first telegraph and said, “What hath God wrought” – did everybody think it was an extinction event?

The notion that technology has disrupted media has been around for a long time, and so I don’t think it’s an extinction event. If we use GAI the right way, it is an accelerant. And I think we need to shift the narrative here a little bit.

One of the trends that has troubled me in the industry over the last 20 to 30 years is how the news industry has gone from leaders in technology to laggards.

So if you think about the television industry and the transmission of media, satellite television was an extraordinary invention. When Ted Turner launched CNN, suddenly you could transmit signals live around the world, whether you were CNN, the BBC, or a local broadcaster. Technology was such an accelerant. When the first internet sites launched, it was news companies that launched them. This was long before there were social platforms.

Unfortunately, what we’ve done as an industry is ceded this territory.

And I think what The New York Times has done, perhaps better than any other news organisation on the planet, is to recognise the importance of data science, engineers, and world-class product leaders like Alex.

I believe very strongly that news organisations, whether local or global, need to invest heavily in understanding technology, because what we have that no technology company can match is reporting resources around the world. Boots on the ground. We have expertise, great tradition, great legacy and great brand..

We have tremendous assets. The idea that we can’t populate our newsrooms with engineers, developers, and people who understand how to take great journalism and transmit it worldwide, on the most appropriate site or platform, and the most appropriate device or moment in time, is admitting defeat.

To frame it this way, I think it’s easy to blame tech companies. It’s easy to blame the decimation of the advertising business. It’s easy to blame the world and howl at the moon. But we need to look internally.

If we walk around saying this (GAI) is an extinction event, it will be one. If we walk around saying this is remarkable technology, there for the taking, I think this could be a golden age of journalism.

Regarding generative AI, I have been hearing that a lot of news organisations, while seeing the opportunities and transmitting that to their staff, find many in their newsrooms expressing unease. How are you dealing with that because it’s difficult to give ultimate answers about what’s going to happen, right?

Morse: I think there’s a tendency with new technology to get scared. Ultimately, when you get scared, you tend to get distracted and start chasing shiny objects. Then it becomes your strategy.

“AI is not our strategy. AI is a tool to be leveraged.”

We’ve looked at our roadmap and priorities and tried to turn the anxiety into momentum. For example, as we have conversations in our newsroom about content strategy and what’s going to have the most impact with our customers… When you begin to walk away from commoditised approaches and we say, “We can’t be the paper of record anymore. We need to be the paper of relevance or the news organisation of relevance.”… That means we can’t cover every school board meeting or local sporting event. Well, we shouldn’t have to. That’s what AI can do for you.

This opens up the newsroom and frees resources to do distinctive and compelling work that will make a difference. We can think about content and product in terms of impact.

If you look at your roadmap and AI as a potential accelerant, it leads to a place of putting the customer first and solving specific problems.

That has guided us in our discussions with different tech companies to focus on specific product challenges instead of chasing short-term revenue or running around scared of what AI might mean for the newsroom.

As consumers continue to evolve and flock to social media platforms, are we as an industry failing to evolve at the same pace? Are our products and value propositions in line with these fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour and expectations?

I think that hits directly on product-market fit. It’s fascinating that before The New York Times got to Wordle, people had been doing their crossword puzzles by hand for decades, since 1942. The notion of New York Times and games is inherent and always has been – even before the original games app.

When it comes to product-market fit, each organisation must look at what makes it special and what makes its community special.

For us, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we could wake up tomorrow and decide to build a games app, but that wouldn’t make much sense because we don’t have that built-in customer behaviour. It’s not what our audience expects; it’s not in our DNA.

But what we have is Atlanta, the world’s largest exporter of black culture. We have a vibrant and dynamic African American community that is fast-growing and innovative in small business, technology, film, and television. So, as we looked at our audience, product-market fit, and opportunity, our games or cooking might be a new product but around black culture.

And I think that’s the notion that each organisation has to look at within their market.

If we look at the two strategic themes of this year in terms of what organisations are doing, one is the bundle, and the other is the niche. Andrew, you’ve got a kind of mega niche, and you’re part of Cox Communications, which also owns Axios, an expert at niches. Can you tell us about your strategy for pushing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and what learnings from CNN and CNN+ inform your strategy?

When I began this role over a year ago, I did so with a particular worldview. This worldview is informed by the roadmap outlined by The New York Times. The New York Times Innovation Report, published about 10 years ago, will be seen as a blueprint for all of us.

At CNN, when we looked at our direct-to-consumer future, we operated with similar principles: understanding our audience, product-market fit, and opportunities. As a global news organisation with expertise in video and talent, it led us down a particular path. It didn’t turn out the way many of us had hoped (at CNN), but it was the right notion.

When I came to Atlanta, and if you look at the challenges every local newspaper faces, whether in the US or worldwide, it’s grim.

We drew a dartboard on a whiteboard in my office. At the centre was Atlanta, then the state of Georgia, one of a handful of states deciding the next US president. So Georgia is at the centre of the political universe.

The next ring is the southeast. If you look at the US map and the erosion of local news sources, we think we can go north until the Washington Post, west until Texas, and south until Florida before finding an organisation telling stories resonant in that world.

But we can’t just be regional for general news. So, we did our homework.

We figured if we do Georgia politics exceptionally well, we’ll pick up subscribers not just in Atlanta and Georgia, but in Washington, D.C., and New York City, because of our expertise. The internet allows us to represent black culture beyond just one city. If we build this product right, it’ll find an audience in every major US metropolitan area and beyond.

We’ve looked at Atlanta sports and food. We’re exploring niches and believe some of these plays can emerge as stand-alone products for different audiences or be part of a broader bundle in the AJC ecosystem.

Andrew, you mentioned you’re having more fun in this role than in a long time and are glad you work for a private company now. What advantages does private ownership give to a news publisher?

Fundamentally, there are three key things any organisation in rapid transformation needs: talent, culture, and time.

“My experience over the last couple of decades shows we’ve amassed great talent and built great culture, but in a big public company, you often run out of time because success doesn’t come overnight – transformation is hard work.”

You need a roadmap allowing you to build, invest, test, learn, fail, start over, and stay focused on a North Star.

You can run out of time for various reasons: quarterly earnings pressures, a parent company with crippling debt, constant changes in corporate leadership, or competing priorities on a balance sheet. This throws you off course. Digital transformation in news requires intense focus and staying true to your core.

I’m fortunate the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is owned by the Cox family. It’s privately owned, has been in the family for about 150 years, and they care deeply about it. They sold TV and radio stations and newspapers but kept the AJC and the Dayton Daily News, their original small paper in Ohio. They acquired Axios because they believe in the future of journalism.

They’ve given us the resources to invest and grow. So, yes, I am really enjoying working for a private company.

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