Global experts tackle media industry’s key innovation challenge at a time of great change

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Dr François Nel introducing the JILeaders Forum in Cape Town, October 2023 (Photo: Suntosh Kaur)

News media decision-makers and thought leaders came together for an afternoon of in-depth discussions with global experts to address the industry’s primary innovation challenge: balancing relevance and environmental responsibility in the era of A.I.

In the first of a new series of JILeaders Forum events exploring the future of journalism, the discussion featured speakers from across the African continent as well as Jordan, Turkey and the UK.

Organised by Dr François Nel, leader of UCLan’s Journalism Innovation and Leadership programme, with Izelle Venter from Media24 in Cape Town, the event was supported by the University of Stellenbosch and Google News Initiative.

In his summing up of the event, Herman Wasserman of the University of Stellenbosch, said it was clear visionary leaders are needed to ensure the media flourishes in the face of its many challenges.

He said: “What this afternoon’s deliberations made clear is that there are some daunting, but also exciting, challenges lying ahead for the media.

“It is therefore so encouraging to see a programme such as this one that emphasises leadership and innovation – because the nature of these challenges are such that it will require visionary leaders in the media who know that business as usual will not be enough, but that innovation, change, and adaptation will be the only way to survive, and not only survive, but also flourish.”

Read Herman Wasserman’s rapporteur notes in full

Ishmet Davidson, CEO Media 24, introduced the event by speaking about the importance of a sustainable future for the news industry. He said: “From a financial and sustainability perspective, the news industry in South Africa and countries in Africa are on our knees. That said, I believe all indications show that generative A.I. presents a massive opportunity to further accelerate the transition of our industry towards its mostly digital future, and for the industry to secure a more sustainable financial future.“

Culture of innovation is essential to media relevance

The challenge of how the media can stay relevant was the subject of the first panel discussion, chaired by Dr Nel and featuring Dimitry Shishkin, media consultant and User Needs evangelist; Hadeel Arja, lead editor of Turkey-based Frontline in Focus; Ivor Price of Cape Town-based Food for Mzanzi; and Morongwa Maud Wandile Phala-Goodwill of Dikgang Publishing company in Botswana. 

Dr Nel said good leaders place a high value on innovation.

He said: “There’s one thing that distinguishes people who are high-performing and that’s their capacity to innovate and be ambidextrous. That means the capacity to work on the current business with quality and precision, looking at efficiencies and effectiveness, while innovating, taking risks, failing forward and looking for new opportunities.

“The best organisations know that you need leadership that recognises giving ideas legs is an essential part of their task.”

Ivor said the size of his organisation, which employees 25 staff, makes it easier to innovate.

He said: “We encourage a culture of experimentation and creativity in the newsroom. It’s okay to fail. We expect people to dial in, or if they’re in the Western Cape to come into the office, on a Tuesday, specifically for innovation meetings.

“We spend half a day brainstorming new ideas across different departments from editorial to business administration. Some of the biggest game changers and innovation ideas have come from the people and the departments we’ve least expected them from.”

  • Dr François Nel introducing the JILeaders Forum in Cape Town, October 2023 (Photo: Suntosh Kaur)

AI: Unmissable opportunity or threat?

The impact of A.I. on journalism – whether it is an opportunity the media cannot afford to miss or a threat to the industry – was the topic of the second panel.

Chair Jeremy Clifford, JILeaders head of mentoring and co-founder of the A.I. Collective, was joined by Lisa MacLeod of FT Strategies; Rawan Damen of Jordan-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism; Tobie Vermeulen, chief information officer at Media 24; and Laurens Vreekamp, author of The Art of A.I. and a member of UCLan visiting faculty.

Lisa said a clear strategy is essential to ensure new businesses grasp the opportunities A.I. presents.

She said: “We surveyed about 1,000 different representatives of publications and what was really interesting was that unclear strategy is one of the main blockers to reaching A.I. goals. Maybe 4% said they have a clear vision and strategy – that gives you an idea of where we are. A lot of work to do.”

Laurens added: “What I think is very encouraging is that almost every newsroom now is sensibly and cautiously experimenting with new technology. To me that’s a sign of maturity, of tackling these new challenges head on. Newsrooms are seeing we need to find opportunities and we need to think about dangers and have guardrails in place, principles of where to use and where not to use A.I.”

The media’s environmental responsibility

Sarah Hartley, UCLan visiting faculty member and founder of environmental newsletter The Northern Eco, stepped up as chair of the final panel on Impact and environmental responsibility.

She was joined by Chidi Chinedu of Eco Nai+, Nigeria’s first dedicated geo-journalism platform; Lameez Omarjee, Media24’s environmental reporter; and Leyl Mohamed, editor at Radio Ergo in Somalia.

Lameez said newsrooms globally are struggling to get audiences interested in news about climate change.

She said: “Sometimes it can seem like an overwhelming topic and they feel disempowered, or maybe the science is too difficult to understand.”

However, she offered some hope: “I’ve found in getting people interested in climate change stories you need to be very localised, they can see themselves in the story. Looking at solutions inspires our readers, makes them feel like they can do something about the problem.

“Because there’s so much misinformation out there, we really need to collaborate with scientists to demonstrate the urgency around the crisis and to add credibility to stories.”

Chidi called on the media to look at its own environmental impact.

He said: “Historically what the media has done regarding the fight against climate change is to extend its core responsibility in its coverage and reporting of issues – it has extended a traditional approach.

“What I’m pushing for is for it to look inwards, to look at its own contribution to carbon emissions.”

The Forum was well-received by those attending in Cape Town and online.

Guy Berger, Cape Town-based media consultant and former UNESCO director, praised the event on LinkedIn, saying: “Congrats to François Nel, PhD who this week organised an open session in Cape Town of his programme for media leaders. Media innovation, his message was, needs people who can be both ambidextrous and be able to give ideas legs. And that also needs a media leadership community.”

The Forum was part of a week-long study block for the Journalism Innovation and Leadership Programme Class of 2023, who come from 12 countries across four continents and work in senior roles for a broad range of media organisations, from national broadcasters and news publishers to new digital start-ups and technology companies.For more information on the part-time, distance-learning postgraduate programme – or bespoke course for in-house training – contact the course team at  JILeaders@uclan.ac.uk