JILeaders Forum: The Media’s Next Chapter – rapporteur notes

Herman Wasserman of the University of Stellenbosch shares his notes from the JILeaders Forum in Cape Town on October 31, 2023

Herman Wasserman of the University of Stellenbosch

Good afternoon everyone, and on behalf of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism, thank you for the invitation to be a part of this exciting and interesting afternoon. I have had many inspiring conversations with Francois over the years, and I’ve always been energized by his creative and innovative approach to journalism and the media, which was on full display again this afternoon alongside that of his colleagues. Thank you also to Media24 for hosting this event and for all the journalists, trainers and academics for investing time and energy in sharing their expertise with us today.

My job this afternoon is to summarize and remind you of some of the key points made by the various panelists, and it will be impossible to improve on them, and I’m standing between you and sundowners, so I’ll be brief.

The central theme running through this afternoon’s sessions was technological advances that are reshaping the media industry. Although there is much excitement and some panic around AI, which has evolved rapidly in the last year in the form of large language models such ChatGPT, and generative visual platforms such as DALL-E (Lisa MacLeod rightly referred to the ‘hype cycle’ around AI), we know that this is not the first challenge that technology has posed to the news industry and journalism practice.

The digital disruption of newsrooms and their traditional business models is something that news organizations have been dealing with at least since the advent of the internet and social media, and will deal with for a long time to come as these technologies keep evolving rapidly. Many of you at Media24 have been at the forefront of putting these technologies to innovative use in the newsroom.

There have been some impressive examples of innovative technologies shared with us today – from VR bringing conflicts up close, to the use of generative AI to better respond to audience needs. (Or just Laurens Vreekamp’s dog-face pants )

But technology never exists in a vacuum. It does not fall from the heavens into our laps. It is always embedded in societies, communities, relationships. So, as the panel on AI reminded us– not inherently good or bad, but how you use it (which was so colourfully demonstrated by Laurens’s pants) – and of course there are real dangers, such as disinformation. But journalists can be active agents that views AI as a valuable opportunity and useful tool. Nor is technology a one-size-fits-all solution – it has to be contextually relevant, as Rawan Daman from ARIJ explained with reference to meeting the challenges of Arabic language for AI.

So, if we accept that technologies are the other key themes were that of relevance and impact– then the questions become: innovation for whom? Innovation with what purpose? How can we monitor and evaluate the impact of such innovation?

In this regard, we heard how important it is that news organizations keep reflecting on their audiences’ needs and how best to gratify those needs – to remain relevant to them, as we heard from Dimitry Shishkin. In her presentation, Hadeel Arja showed us that the purpose of VR technology can help raise awareness of conflicts and war, amplify the voices of victims, and help shape humanitarian responses – because technology is put in the service of the older skill of impactful storytelling. In all of this, the audience should remain central, as Tobie and Rawan reminded us when they talked about how newsrooms should be transparent, collaborative and ethical about how and why they use AI.

But there is also a more negative impact of journalism to consider, and that is the impact that news production, news agendas and also AI can have on the environment. So when it comes to designing and implementing innovative journalism, it should include critical reflection on how journalism can highlight what is probably the biggest threat to humankind. It was therefore encouraging to hear Lameez Omarjee saying that environmental questions are part of the mainstream news agenda at News24, while Leyla Mohamed described how this is done at grassroots level in Somalia. Chidi Chinedu also encouraged the media to look at its own complicity in the climate crisis through its own carbon emissions.

Perhaps the overarching insight is that for technology to have a positive effect on newsrooms, media leaders need to foster a culture of innovation – Ivor Price demonstrated how Food for Mzanzi integrates this culture of innovation into their production routines. Morongwa Maud Wandile Phala-Goodwill emphasised the importance of nurturing talent in organizations, and for this, of course, media organizations need visionary leaders. It is such a supportive culture that could empower journalists to develop the sort of AI strategy that Lisa MacLeod and Tobie Vermeulen talked about at FT and Media24 respectively.

In conclusion, 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 emphasizes leadership and innovation – because it 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. And equally important, that this flourishing of the media will be not only for its own sake, but will be ultimately aimed at remaining relevant, impactful and responsive to society.

And this is why a programme on journalism innovation and leadership like the one you are running is so important to the media industry and the public at large.

Thank you very much and all the best for the rest of your programme.

Herman Wasserman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and a former newspaper journalist. His books include Tabloid Journalism in South Africa, Media, Geopolitics, and Power Media, Conflict and Democracy in Africa, and Disinformation in the Global South (with Dani Madrid-Morales).  He is a Fellow of the International Communication Association and an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. He has consulted for UNESCO, Deutsche Welle Akademie, Digital Public Square, Africa Check, the Center for International Media Assistance and serves on the scientific committee of Reporters without Borders.