Deputy head of the Journalism and Media Communications faculty Robbie Smyth has seen a lot of change in his industry over the last few years. We asked him to sit down with us and tell us what changes he sees on the horizon.
What was the last big shift in Communications and Journalism and how has it changed the industry?
R: There are a few things really. Internet is definitely a game-changer but behind that was the digitalization of media, of technology. It affects everything - TV, radio, film, photography. The news media giving away things for free turned out to be a big mistake. The technology was disrupted and therefore their revenue stream was disrupted. The fallout in the news media industry is them giving away content for free. After that in the music industry, the stealing of content. The result is now that people do not like paying for media content whether it is a film, photograph, article, a song, a video, etc. It’s a pretty tough sector to be in if that revenue stream is disappearing.
The other issue is how people are accessing this content. When newspapers began to put their content online it was a static version of the print. Now, people are looking for more, whether it is more pictures or more information. Journalists are now learning to write in a very different way than twenty years ago, and it has been our mission as a college to adapt and ensure our students are trained up for that change.
Blogging itself is not that important of a media stream anymore. What is important is the platforms where people are accessing media content. People would rarely go to The Irish Times or The New York Times website but they would read an article from them on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. That is becoming an important thing because these platforms show the different ways we are curating content. This is our challenge, to figure out how to create audio content, video content, etc that works across those platforms.
The biggest change is how we are using mobile to access content. We use our smartphones to access all of our media, film, TV, radio, news - we get it all through our phone.
Do you expect automation to play a role in the industry?
R: It does play a little role; in sports results and things you can predict. There is AI in a lot of newsrooms now. Automation is creating graphics and statistics. It could create the bones of an article; I could see that happening, but you will still need people to subedit it, to create a headline, to create a pull quote. It would take a massive leap in AI to be able to make edits in film or radio. Some of the heavy lifting could be taken on by AI, but it is the fine edits where we would still need people. Jobs in the next fifteen years or so will move towards careers like Finishing Editors. I can see AI doing a lot of things but to make a product finalised and polished we will still need people. Take a non-media example of painting a room - a roller can do the brunt of the work but you will still need your paintbrush to make the final touches.
The most important thing that AI can do for media is the development of creativity, generating the ideas for content across media platforms. I think idea generation will become more and more important because it will distinguish good news media versus robotic media. You can see it in recommendation media. A lot of people will ask what podcast will I listen to or what film will I go and see. An AI machine will give you a top five, but I can’t see them saying why you should listen to this top five. For example, Netflix works off a recommendation system, but if you have a Netflix account you will see how blunt of an instrument it is. Sometimes you look at it and go "Why on earth does Netflix think I would like this?" That's why people are so important. Creativity is so important, to know how to create ideas, how to take a good photograph. For example, I was watching a broadcast of the English parliament recently. Now, a good journalist could tell you who the important people are in that room instantly; I am not sure how quickly automation could do that, or how automation could pick out who is talking about the most important things in that room, whereas a journalist is trained for that. The journalists were able to predict what was happening in the room before the vote in government came in.
Are there any media roles that could be interrupted by automation?
R: Interviewing is definitely a space where I think automation can come into place. Interviews are the hardest things to get right in news media; using automation to decide who to interview would be a great help. Even if you think of working in a radio studio as a researcher - one of the first tasks you are given is to come up with ideas for interviews, decide on who to interview and then find the person. AI would be able to help you with the data for this, to surf through the information and pull out the important information for your interview, but you will still need someone to do the interview, and you need someone to write the story. Also, when you think of the Marvel movie franchise, the number of people involved in making the film outside of the actors/directors has grown significantly. So, there are many ways that automation can help media but in terms of the personal touch, whether it be an interviewer, an animator etc, AI hasn’t replaced them yet! You need a human eye to look at a piece of content that is going to be presented to a human eye.
Are there any jobs that you think could be automated but shouldn’t be?
R: I would say a number of basic presentation pieces could be automated like the weather or news headlines, sports results, traffic reports. However, the syntax would have to become more sophisticated. One thing about media is that it is very formulaic, so in that aspect it does lend itself to automation but we are a long way away from moving all presenting pieces to AI.
We are living in a world where our attention spans are very short and we are always on the hunt for new information. How as a worker in media do you find the balance between the quality of your work and the demand from your consumers to provide them with the most current information?
R: Well a new form of journalism has emerged. You hear people talk about long-format journalism like investigative pieces, podcasts etc. These are all a form of reflective journalism and the audience receiving this news is a little more relaxed. And then you have rolling news which has emerged as a distinctive product in its own right, so much so that we have started teaching it.
Years ago you would have had a press conference with all of your media channels there; news, radio, TV, and they would have made a product for immediate use on broadcast media. Then the print newsrooms would have time to develop a piece that would go in the next day's paper.
Now, it is very different. Today, you have to tweet that you are at the press conference, you have to write a piece of breaking news on what the press conference is about, you have to write what happened, then you have to write about people's reaction to what happened. That's where social media and online news have created an interesting product. You look at RTE.ie, Thejournal.ie; if there is an event, they will keep offering updates, resulting in a really long article where people keep adding bits to it. It is instant, and it means the journalists are much busier. In times past, the Saturday and Sunday media were predominantly reflective, whereas now people want both. They want to know that, say, a strike has happened, and then they also want to know why it happened. The longer form pieces have emerged much stronger in their own right, and the rolling news is a skill.
A lot of people will get their start in rolling news, being asked if they can write two hundred words on this event or this legislation etc. There is a precedent for this which is sport. For example, for a ninety-minute soccer game, you can expect a live update every 120 seconds, which is forty-five updates throughout the game. And then you would have a half-time roundup and a full-time roundup. BBC Sport for example, some of the matches could have 100-150,000 people following the live updates, which is also a great advertising opportunity for businesses.
What skills should Communications and Journalism students focus on developing in this ever-changing media climate?
R: Firstly, if you are new to the world of media or if you are a student, the very first thing you should do is start building a content portfolio. You should have some sort of blog or webpage showing your content. Doesn't matter if only twenty or thirty people are looking at it, this is your professional CV. You should be creating a little museum of you because that is what employers will be looking at.
Another skill you should develop is specialising in a particular area of media. One of the first things I ever wrote was a business report because no one wanted to write about unemployment. You see this a lot in journalism, a lot of business journalists may not have a background in business, but they are good writers. Also, the audience reading the business news wouldn’t necessarily have a background in business either.
When you start out, you need to read and read and read! The reading needs to be two things. The first thing is other people's media content. How did they write that article, how did they shoot that video, what was their interview technique like, how did they go about presenting that topic on their podcast etc. You need to be listening, reading, watching everything.
You also need to be reading up on history and reading academically. I remember years ago I had a friend who was working in the Daily Mirror. He had been working there about six or seven months and when he was at his Christmas party his editor just pulled his work apart. He said, "Your stuff is good; you just don’t really know what you are talking about." Now, my friend was, of course, gobsmacked; he thought he was doing a good job. It turned out that at the time there had been a great book written called The Battle at Stalingrad and it had been adapted into a movie starring Jude Law. The Mirror had reviewed the film but it was clear from the review that they had no idea about the historical background. The editor even said that he was "embarrassed" for them. So, the learning for me from that, which is an important skill for any aspiring journalist, is to know the history of what you are talking about. Understand the history that is important to your audience. You can never know enough!
Any thoughts on particular goals young journalists would want to keep in mind?
R: I wouldn’t know about particular goals, but it is very important to have confidence about where you want to you go in your media career. Media work and creative work - a lot of it is repetitive stuff but you need to have consistency in your skills. In the world of media, it is very hard to have a five-year career goal, like I want to go from intern to reporter to editor of The Irish Times in 5 years. Media isn’t linear in that sense. What I can say, is that you have to adapt to this and be ready for any media position that comes your way. You should always be ready to take the next step up.
Let’s say I am a seventeen-year-old who wants to be a Journalist, but I go on Twitter and see the speed of the media landscape around me and I don’t think I can keep up, what advice would you give me?
R: If you can tweet, you can be a journalist. If you can take a picture, you can become a journalist. If you can write about the tweet and you can write about the picture, you are a journalist!
The entry-level is, you need to go and do a course, and you need to be interested in it. The biggest problem that I find, and this is a problem with media colleges all around the world; you have a student who wants to be, say, a journalist, or a director, or a presenter on TV. But they haven’t seen any films, and they’ve never read journals, and that is a big problem. I have final year film students and I ask them "Have you seen that film? This and that," and silence! So we decided as a faculty that we need to tell our students that if they want to get into this business, they need to know their stuff. And this is the first year that I am starting to see the shift. Students are engaging more with the industry.
If you want to be a filmmaker; you need to watch the classics like Citizen Kane, John Ford films, Japanese horror films, and always, if you are watching a remake, watch the original film!
There is also a lot of zeitgeist things you should be reading. If there is a book that everyone is reading, you should be reading it. Take, for example, the book Gone Girl, which was adapted into a film. That was just the start. The book also spawned publishers putting their money behind books in that genre like Girl on the Train and Lying in Wait. You need to be on the cusp of that and if you can understand why this particular genre is getting more attention you are in a good space. So yeah, you should have read War in Peace but you also should have read Gone Girl!
If you are a professional, you should be deepening your skills all the time. So, for me, it is my video skills. I am a words man, I work in words, so to enhance my skills in video I am going on a MoJo [Mobile Journalism] course on campus. Also, data analysis is another one. I am very good at interpreting data because of my academic background, but that is a skill not all journalists would have. Just keep learning and keep deepening your skills.
My final tip is LinkedIn! You need to be on the platform and posting on the platform. I for one haven’t utilised it enough and I need to. You need to be connecting with your network on LinkedIn and utilising the tool. The self-promotion should never end for media people and creatives. As a media worker, even if you are working in a global company, you are almost self-employed because it is always about your next idea, and where you can add value. You want people to keep coming back to you, and LinkedIn is a great platform to show what you can do. People like to be asked to do things but people really like people who are happy to be asked. You can't go through your first ten years in media without saying yes to things. As soon as you're seen to be someone who says no, it is not a good position to be in. I am in the last third of my career, and I still have to say yes to things!