Collapse or Reborn? The Media Industry in the Age of AI (Part 5)

Emerging technologies, powered by big data, algorithms, and AI, are increasingly taking over human editors and reshaping the media industry in a way unseen before. In this article, we tell stories hap

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Collapse or Reborn? The Media Industry in the Age of AI (Part 5)

Writer: Feng Shangyue

Editor: Yang Xuan,Zhao Xiaochun

Editor’s note:

We are witnessing the revolution of the media world.

Machine-based content distribution is gradually taking over the manual work of editors while the emerging “we media” is upending the ways in which content is made.

Such tremendous changes happened in as short as three years.

People may grow nostalgic sometimes, but more often, they realize that they must move on in order to survive in the new world. This holds true for editors, web portals and content creators alike. This article is dedicated to them all.

This is the Part 5 of a 5-Part Series. 

Link to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.


Divers user persona

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

In NetEase, some used to reshare the whimsical articles with sensational headlines to WeChat groups to mock at. Many complained in secret that the company was messing about at the price of losing its “attitude”. As time goes by, complaints are heard less and less.

People still wonder if they can and should follow the steps of Toutiao, though.

This June, a diagram titled “Parallel Universes of Internet Market in China”, allegedly made by Zhou Zhenghua at Tencent Research Institute, went rival among media professionals, which certainly represent the view of some.

According to the diagram, users of NetEase and Sina are mostly highly-educated people living in big cities, as compared to Toutiao’s poorly-educated, ordinary users living in small cities.

In response, Toutiao accused the diagram of being absent of facts, claiming its users in tier-one and tier-two cities combined take up more than 50% of its total users.

Image credit to 123rf.com.cn.

Whatever the truth, there is no argument that different users do favor different apps. Like in the old days of print media, Luxury brands would place ads on media outlets like Caijing and Vogue rather than China’s Quora Zhiyin, even though the latter had a way higher circulation.

NetEase managed to build a distinguished, high-end brand image in the past by advocating the slogan of “keep your attitude”.

In the eyes of a NetEase employee, the company has the advantage of winning over white collars, because it has editors to handpick news stories, though not many (just over 300 per day), to ensure they have aggregated all in-depth news on the day.

“Toutiao and other portals are now serving a majority of popular information, and when it comes to a higher level of more serious content, users must be further subdivided based on their values and aesthetic taste”. Wang Junyu, founder of content aggregation app “Qingmang”, told Kr-Asia.

“Only 60% of our content is distributed by machines, compared to 80% of other counterparts.” Fan Gongchen at Sohu said, “But we are still asked to optimize editing stream and transform editor’s role.”

Original content still counts

Photo by Calum MacAulay on Unsplash

If all portal webs merely post articles from “we media” account, what’s the difference between them?

So, maybe one of the answers is to focus more on original content.

In NetEase, Yang Binbin, the newly-appointed deputy editor-in-chief, promoted the application of content algorithms on one hand, to scale down online editorial staff.

On the other, he reorganized an “in-house studio” to encourage staff to produce more original content, providing them with more room for creativity while allowing them to directly report to himself and another deputy editor-in-chief Liu Jing.

After a journey of self-exploration through the darkness of uncertainty, NetEase recently announced its new slogan of “keep everyone’s attitude”, trying to reach consumers at different circles of life.

It seems NetEase has found its way ahead to focus on business like “NetEase’s Yanxuan”, a high-end e-commerce website.

“People feel services NetEase provides are always better than others, from e-commerce, e-mail to music. That’s because we have been in the quest for better products and better services for years,” Yang Binbin told Kr-Asia, “‘NetEase’s Yanxuan’ is one of our priorities.”

Tencent so far hasn’t made any changes to its content department. However, several articles recently published by its original columns including “Prism” and “Deep Web” were rated highly by its peers, possibly because Tencent, as an Internet giant for which traffic is never an issue, is unlikely to be pushed around by traffic.

Collapse and rebuild

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash.

Except for the in-depth studio, staffs in Steven’s department are now down to merely a few journalists who are responsible for writing some short articles. Since the editors have been replaced, journalists now have their share of concern: Will they be rendered obsolete as well?

Well, they have good cause to fear.

Associated Press began to use Wordsmith to write its financial news in as early as July 2014; the Los Angeles Times can convert announcements from the US Geological Survey (USGS) to breaking news within only three minutes with the help of a writing program.

Toutiao is also working with media outlets to generate contents with AI-powered machines.

But don’t panic—for now, machines are largely writing sport reports, stock market developments, weather forecasts, etc., which can be generated by crawling online data and follow certain writing patterns.

Roles that require creative thinking and understanding of complicated things are not threatened anytime soon.

For China’s media industry, the machines only pose a distant threat. But, the loss of professional elites, absent news reporting ethics and legacy, deteriorating content quality, are all more burning problems.

According to Chen Lei, a large number of journalists, including Cao Yunwu, Yang Jibin and other famous former journalists of the Southern Weekly, who could have become the backbones of media outlets, have fled the industry to work for such titans as Alibaba, Toutiao and Didi or to “we media”.

What the future holds for media, with both ad revenue and elites gone? Maybe one of the solutions is to figure out diversified channels to monetize its content.

High-cost quality content could take advantage of intelligent recommendation to identify those consumers who are willing to pay for such content.

Hope still lies ahead. In the U.S., long-time noted media outlets remain to be important, reliable information sources in the new age, which may be best exemplified by the revival of The New York Times.

Image credit to 123rf.com.cn.

In 2010, the news agency’s digital revenue stood at $200 million or so, almost all coming from ad sales. The figure doubled quickly to $500 million last year, over $200 million of which were contributed by subscription fees from more than 1.5 million consumers.

In the era of information explosion, what readers want is filtered content, which may give birth to new forms of high-end media agencies.

The Information, a newly-founded subscription-only news site in the U.S., offers quality investigative and original reporting authored by a team of 15 former senior journalists of the Wall Street Journal.

So far, even with only two articles a day, it has attracted nearly 10,000 subscribers including Zuckerberg who pay $399 annually for access.

High-quality content is never cheap. Independent high-end paid media has not emerged in China yet—but will soon, as suggested by the lucrative pay-for-knowledge business.

Toutiao is improving its algorithms to better balance machine-based content distribution and readers’ experience, claiming it will fight against cheesy content and sensational headlines with four updates of machine model every year, even at the cost of 20% click rate, in a bid to broaden consumers’ vision.

Wu Da mentioned in the interview several times that he is nostalgic for the old days, and doesn’t share the same aesthetic taste of the new era.

He is one of the last-generation editors. “As a traditional media practitioner, I’d be lying if I say I don’t want to go back to old times, but it would be insane if I say we could go about the media work the old ways,” he explained.