Job cuts at SPH reflect the changing face of journalism

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced substantial job cuts. However, these cuts are an indication of future success, not turmoil.

By Oliver Ward

Journalists at SPH fear for their jobs after the news corporation announced its intention to axe 230 staff members. The job cull will involve 130 redundancies, reducing staffs in the core media divisions by 15%.

SPH reported a surge in profits for 2017. The group recorded a net profit for the fiscal year of S$350.1 million (US$256.9 million). Rather than a signal of financial distress, the SPH cutbacks are an indication of modernisation and progression.

To stay relevant and profitable, SPH needs to keep up with consumer trends and create stimulating content for the new generation. To do this, it needs to embrace AI solutions.

The way we consume news is changing

News consumers have made the transition to online platforms. 85% of the population now use online news sources, and there is fierce competition to stand out in a saturated online news market.

Source: Reuters

With so many established players in the online news market, news outlets are hyper-targeting audiences with attractive clickbait titles. The changing shape of the media has allowed for the emergence of new AI technologies to specifically target audiences.

Lars Eidnes, a 29-year-old web developer, analysed more than two million online articles and made the website Click-O-Tron. Click-O-Tron uses a formula to create clickbait titles. While it is a joke site, with headlines like “John McCain Speaks in His Own Words” and “How the World’s Most Extreme Baby Moms Lost Weight”, it is an insight into the media of the future. Why use journalists to generate catchy headlines for their articles when a programme can offer a perfectly engineered algorithmic headline designed to target your audiences?

Long essay-type articles are a dying breed

Source: Reuters

The bulk of the population now consumes their news through smartphones. This platform does not lend itself to long essay-type articles.

The rise of the smartphone has changed the way we communicate. The new generation communicates with visuals. The number of images sent across social media per day rocketed from two billion in 2015 to 3.25 billion in 2016. Visual journalism is becoming the new norm.

SPH and other media outlets do not need as many journalists

This also means there is less need for actual journalists. AI can maximise output for visual content.

Programmes like Wibbitz analyse text to automatically summarize the story and compile relevant licensed media to produce an original video with custom branded graphics.

SPH is taking steps towards producing more visual articles. In 2016, SPH invested S$ 6.8 million (US$ 5 million) in Brand New Media Singapore (BNMS). BNMS is a leading video content production company. Its past productions won at the Asian Television Awards.

Julian Tan, Head of the Digital Division at SPH said, “consumption of online videos has seen a steady rise in Singapore”, adding, “SPH’s strategic investment into BNMS comes at an opportune time as we strive to complement and enhance our video storytelling capabilities.”

Other companies are looking to transition to stay ahead of the industry and increase revenues. Media outlets are forging connections with television companies to produce more visual contents and allow for more crossovers. NBCUniversal has made investments in Vox and Buzzfeed as has Time Warner in Mashable.

These relationships have worked both ways, the news companies with a large online presence are offering marketing opportunities to younger audiences for the television networks.

There are other opportunities to incorporate technology to improve productivity

There are other technologies and platforms available to significantly boost journalists’ productivity and output. Grammarly, for example, is a plugin and desktop application that runs an accurate spelling, grammar and plagiarism checker anywhere you write online.

Full Fact also announced in June 2017 that it would launch two fact-checking platforms in 2018. The software will store a database of fact-checked claims and be able to monitor subtitles from politicians’ speeches in real-time and fact-check their claims. When released, the platform will significantly decrease the time editors spend fact-checking articles and help in the fight against the proliferation of fake news.

Even on the design front, there is software to facilitate artistic decisions. Analytical Visual Assessment (AVA) is a software platform that can select images to accompany an article that will resonate more with target audiences.

AI is now sufficiently advanced to write articles

The future of journalism is quickly advancing. Using natural language generation (NLG) technology, the technology behind Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, AI bots can produce concisely written articles. Human input will only be required to select relevant data sets. The bots can then analyse the data and write up the findings. The Associated Press is already using the software to generate stories about corporate financial quarterly earnings.

Kris Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science estimated that computers would be responsible for 90% of news contents by the mid-2020s.

The decision from SPH to cut back on journalists is a leap towards the new era of journalism. It demonstrates a company pro-actively responding to consumer needs and modernising to catapult itself to the head of the pack. In the hyper-competitive world of news reporting, a failure to innovate is a death sentence. The SPH message is clear, it wants to keep Singapore at the forefront of modern journalism, and that means reducing jobs and embracing technology.