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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Media Business
July 7, 2023

Why action is needed to save quality news from destruction by AI and big tech

Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford delivers the 2023 Olsen Lecture at St Bride's Church.

By Dominic Ponsford

On Thursday 6 July Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford delivered the 2023 Olsen Lecture at St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street.

Covering the threat of generative AI, press standards, big tech and churnalism, Ponsford called for regulatory action to help the news industry – but also for journalism to get its own house in order if it wants to win back the trust of readers.

Read on for the full speech.

Dominic Ponsford’s 2023 Olsen Lecture at St Bride’s Church in full

Good evening and thank you so much for inviting me to deliver this year’s Tom Olsen lecture on the hallowed ground of St Bride’s Church.

For the more secular and lapsed among us, this place tends be associated with extremes of emotion: celebrations, like the wonderful journalists’ charity carol service which ushers in the end of another a year; memorials to much-loved former colleagues; or a place to go for contemplation in moments of quiet despair (which there have been a few of in my career).

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Tonight for me is a celebration of surviving 20 years in that most precarious of roles, a journalists’ journalist. And dare I say it of the fact that the title I have steered and at times just clung to for dear life, Press Gazette, has not just survived but thrived, rather against the odds.

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But it is also a chance to contemplate probably the biggest challenge our industry has faced in that 20 years, the rise of generative AI.

I’m going to suggest some ways in which news media might weather the AI storm and even harness it to sail forwards.

But first, I’d like to look at some of the mistakes of the past in the hope that we learn from them and deal with this next phase of technological revolution better than previous ones.

Grounds for optimism

I remain hugely optimistic about the future of journalism, about the current vibrancy of our trade and of its capacity to bring about positive change (while it, must be said, breaking a few things along the way).

But it would be remiss of me not to use this podium to ring an alarm bell over the fact that in the space of a generation we have allowed something wonderful, positive and immeasurably valuable for society to be savagely diminished – local journalism.

Many will recall that Press Gazette came very close to being a casualty itself of the 2008 financial crisis and the first major wave of digital disruption to hit the print publishing industry.

In April 2009 I was fired, and announced the closure of Press Gazette, for a second time in the space of three years.

At the time I wrote a (not entirely disinterested) comment piece for The Guardian warning that if Press Gazette were to die it could be seen as the canary in the coalmine for the news industry. After a year or so in which it felt like I had been writing of little else other than closures and job cuts, I had written the story of my own title’s demise.

This was a tragedy, I said, for the stories which would no longer be told.

Thankfully, on a beach somewhere, reading his Guardian media section, entrepreneur Mike Danson saw my coded plea and decided to throw Press Gazette a lifeline at a point in our journey when we felt like Kate Winslet in the closing scenes of Titanic (and could so easily have ended by like Leonardo DiCaprio, sinking lifeless to the bottom of the ocean like so many other news brands in that period).

Since then we’ve continued under the same ownership and it has guaranteed our independence whilst also providing extra support when we have needed it, which has put us in quite a privileged position and enabled to carry on our campaigning work.

If Press Gazette is a bellwether for the industry we cover, our experience since 2009 should give everyone huge grounds for optimism. Last year was our most profitable since the early 2000s and we now have a ten-strong team producing our website, podcast, newsletters, awards and other events.

So I deliver this lecture as someone who has not only reported on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the UK news business over the last 20 years but as someone who has lived it at the sharp end and has the grey hairs to prove it.

A profitable underclass

My journalism journey began in 1998 as a district reporter on the Battle Observer in East Sussex.

This was a time when a revolution in printing technology had made local newspaper publishing vastly profitable (though very little of those profits were, it seemed, being reinvested in the product).

In many ways it was a dream job, driving around the Sussex countryside in a battered Morris Minor as the district reporter for a historic town and its surrounding villages.

I was in charge of my own edition, trying to get a front-page story out of a constituency of less than 10,000 people every week as well as filling six or seven change pages. As my first editor reassured me: If nothing happens, that’s a story! Though I am still not sure if he was right about that.

My only gripes were the comparative lack of hard news (ie. murder and mayhem) compared with nearby Hastings and the money, which at £8,000 per year meant I needed to take on additional part-time work even to support my pathetically cheap lifestyle in a shared house in Hastings.

Then, as now, local newspaper journalists were a class apart from the rest of society – an underclass.

It didn’t feel like it, but at the time this was around the high-water mark of local newspaper profitability – with owner Johnston Press delivering 40% profit margins to its grateful shareholders.

Back then my title, the two-edition paid-for Rye and Battle Observer, seemed to be run in the cheapest way possible: one reporter per edition and a shared sub-editor. So three poorly-paid staff.

I was amazed at the time that the awesome responsibility of being the eyes and ears for a local community could rest with me – a brand-new journalism graduate who did not know his widows from his orphans.

My drive to carry on in this career despite relative penury came from the gradual realisation that every day I had the potential to change the world for the better. It is something that has stuck with me ever since.

I was a keyboard-wielding super-hero who could change the world with words printed on thousands of newspapers read by an entire community every week.

At university I dreamed of being a foreign correspondent like James Cameron, an investigative journalist like Phillip Knightley or a gonzo reporter like Hunter S Thompson.

But in the town council meetings, police and fire stations and district council agendas of Battle I found a calling than in its way was just as glamorous – mining for news at the coalface of journalism. Being the bloke who enabled the whole news business, and the whole of society, to function smoothly by providing the precious building blocks of independently verified and sourced information.

We led the fight against a huge waste incinerator being sited in Battle, campaigned in favour of pedestrianisation of the High Street and when a young political upstart called Nigel Farage launched his political career trying to steal the safe Tory seat for UKIP we followed his campaign with interest.

I was there to console the bereaved and ensure their loved-ones lives were remembered, and in some cases to highlight the negligence which had lead to their deaths. Headteachers, business owners and police inspectors may have been paid vastly more then I – but they all beat a path to my door when they needed to get a message out to the local community, and they answered the phone when I put questions to them on behalf of that community.

Even at a shoestring operation like the Johnston Press-owned Observer series there was a strong sense of reporters being the eyes and ears of their communities. Court cases were covered, council meetings attended. Much of the job simply involved walking the streets meeting people, looking at noticeboards and trying to work out what was happening.

Losing the local voice

Back then there were around 20 journalists covering the towns of Rye, Battle, Hastings and Bexhill – the area known as 1066 country on tourism maps – with centuries of experience and knowledge between them.

Today the operation comprises just three or four journalists (depending on whether you count a share of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter).

It is the same story across the UK, where most local newspaper titles survive, but only as hollowed-out shells compared with what they were.

Journalists tend to write for online, with newspapers compiled in retrospect.

The focus is on stories which drive clicks – so restaurant openings, mansions for sale with lots of pictures and cute puppies in need of a home tend to do well. Stories about local politics less so. Face-to-face, shoe leather reporting has largely gone out of the window.

It is the same story now across the UK. Some London boroughs have no professional journalists at all holding them to account.

Kensington and Chelsea is a case in point. In 1990 it had two dedicated newspapers with more than a dozen journalists covering the patch.

By 2016 there were no dedicated local newspaper journalists in the borough and no-one to pick up on concerns raised by Grenfell Tower residents about fire safety in a blog post. In 2017, 79 residents died when the residential block where those concerns were raised burned to the ground.

Grant Feller who worked for the Kensington News in 1990 told me: “Any local newspaper journalist worth his or her salt would have been all over that story because of that blog.”

Technology has meant that a smaller number of local journalists cover a lot of ground. Those that remain do an amazing job and there are some impressive local news titles remaining.

But the fact remains there has been a colossal decline in professional independent local journalism – from more than 13,000 journalists to possibly just a few thousand remaining.

This is a tragedy for people in many communities who no longer have a voice.

What the Duopoly did to the economics of news

For modern democracy we are in uncharted territory. The universal franchise depends on an informed electorate, but there is now a whole tranche of local democracy largely un-covered – except by Facebook groups. And we only need look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal to get an idea of how that might work out for us.

This tragedy was probably hastened by the greed of newspaper owners and a cynical strategy which always seemed focused on making money on the way down.

But the biggest driver of decline was the arrival on the scene of tech platforms which offered a far more cost-effective way to target customers for small and medium sized business advertisers.

Pre-2008, the largest columns on local newspaper balance sheets were advertising for Jobs, Cars and Homes. After that date advertising all but disappeared to specialist sites, and to Google and Facebook.

In 2007 press advertising – mags and newspapers combined – was worth £7.1bn in the UK, or 39% of the £17bn total UK ad spend. (That’s about £11bn in today’s money.)

In 2022, all national, regional and magazine titles combined made around £2bn in advertising (print and online) out of the total £35bn UK ad spend (so less than a fifth of what they were making in 2007). They’ve gone from taking 39% to a 6% slice of the pie.

By comparison last year around £15bn of UK ad spend was spent with two US tech companies alone – Alphabet and Meta (Google and Facebook in old money).

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider that disparity. Two US tech platforms together make something like seven times the amount in advertising revenue of every UK newspaper and magazine title (in print and online) combined.

And it is not as if those news publishers do not have an audience or have been slouches when it comes to digital transformation.

Our biggest national and regional publisher, Reach, has a monthly audience of 38 million in the UK, News UK 30 million and the Daily Mail group also 30 million.

But the digital ecosystem is a casino rigged in favour of the house: Alphabet and Meta, who are the effective owners of the internet in the UK.

This will sound partly like whining about competitors who are just better at serving their customers. But the Duopoly‘s dominance was brought about because of a couple of colossal mistakes:

  • 1) The tech platforms were allowed to bear almost no legal responsibility for what they publish, so they provide content at a small fraction of the cost of professional publishers who are governed by defamation, privacy and contempt laws as well as the Advertising Standards Association. This is because at the start of the internet, service providers were made no more responsible for the content they published than newspaper delivery companies are. Legislators could not have predicted the rise of social media and the extent to which platforms like Google would become publishers in their own right. Google, Facebook and others were able to scale quickly because their content is provided for free and it matters not a jot them whether it is true or even legal. To quote Stanley Baldwin talking about the old print barons in the 1930s – they have power without responsibility.
  • 2) Regulators allowed monopolies to grow unchecked. Google has a monopoly position over search, and monopolistic control over the advertising technology which underpins the web; Meta has a near monopoly over social media via Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. They’ve been allowed to commercially milk a level of dominance which would not be allowed in any other aspect of the economy.

[Read more: The US and UK Google ad-tech litigation which could win billions for publishers]

The nightmare of what to do about the impact of unfettered foreign-owned tech monopolies eating the lion’s share of UK ad-spend remains unresolved – but will hopefully be finally addressed this year in the Digital Markets Bill, which looks set to force them to share data and some revenue with news publishers.

Alphabet, Meta and increasingly Apple and Amazon have taken the ad revenue which previously paid for the journalism which underpinned our democracy and bound local communities together.

They are currently fighting tooth and nail against any attempts to persuade them to give back a little of that vast wealth to help rebuild industries which they have helped to destroy.

In Canada they are threatening to block journalism on their networks rather than be forced to pay publishers for content. Such tactics will be coming to the UK soon.

In my view, debate around the value of clicks driven back and forth between Google, Facebook and publishers is a red herring. As are questions around the value of professionally-produced news content to the platforms. Though clearly, Google and Facebook would be very much less interesting places for their users to spend time without journalism.

The simple fact is that Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Tiktok, Netflix and others have reached a size where they have so much power, influence and audience that they should be compelled to give a little back to the societies which they drain cash from.

Commercial broadcast TV news survives not because it is profitable, but because Ofcom (and the government) dictates that it is a cost of doing business for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

Everyone has a right to access quality local journalism about the place where they live and it is entirely right and justified that the tech giants should share a little of their turnover – say 10% – to fund it. It’s exactly the same as mining companies or oil producers who are expected to pay extra tax for privilege of extracting our country’s natural resources.

The devil will come in the detail of how this local public interest journalism gets funded. I would argue that ultimately we should focus on supporting journalists with a public service remit whose work is available for use by all as a public resource – so to local newspapers, websites, TV and the tech platforms. We should create an independent network of public service news agencies funded by the tech media giants.

Publishers who meet the public service threshold should also be allowed to apply for support from the tech giants’ fund.

Press Gazette’s campaigns

In my 20 years at Press Gazette I’ve seen again and again the power and value of independent journalism in my professional community and it is something which every community deserves to have.

Perhaps the most vivid example was 2007 when I was contacted by disrought local newspaper journalist Sally Murrer, who was on police bail after being arrested by counter-terrorism officers, strip-searched and threatened with life imprisonment under the then-obscure offence of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. Her home was ransacked by police, her children terrorised and her notepads, phone and computer equipment seized.

Her only offence, it seemed, had been to have off the record conversations with a police contact.

She said Press Gazette’s coverage of her case was a turning point for her – it rallied support amongst the industry and the charges against her were eventually thrown out. Although Thames Valley Police predictably admitted doing no wrong.

This obscure common law offence was one we got to know well (and the heavy-handed police tactics) as the Met Police charged some 28 former Sun and News of the World journalists with misconduct in a public office under Operation Elveden from 2011 to 2014.

The intimidatory use of arrest and criminal trial against journalists paying for public interest stories was unheard of in the UK and I’m proud that Press Gazette was the first (and for some time the only) publication to raise concerns about this. Eventually all were cleared.

In 2014 it was Press Gazette which raised the alarm when we discovered the Met Police had accessed the phone records of journalists at The Sun in order to find and punish lawful sources. At that time (in the wake of the hacking scandal) few were interested in a story which painted tabloid journalists as victims.

Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign would reveal that surveillance of journalists and their sources was widespread amongst police forces across the UK who were abusing their powers to protect their own reputations. We were eventually successful in helping to secure a change to the law banning police from accessing journalists’ call records without court approval.

Today Press Gazette’s campaigning focus is around securing a fair shout for news publishers in a media ecosystem where they have gone from being apex predators to the endangered species list.

We have also sought to shine a light on the secret multi-million-pound deals Google has done with nearly every publisher in the world in order to win friends and protect its monopoly.

The real danger to publishers from ChatGPT

Generative AI is today the hottest topic on our news agenda.

It seems unbelievable that ChatGPT has only been with us for just over six months. It already has more than 100m users. And, along with its competitors, it looks set to become as ubiquitous as Google and as disruptive to the news business.

As many of you will know, generative AI works by analysing billions of words which have been published online (including professional journalism) to answer questions, solve problems and complete mini projects via a form of hi-tech mimicry.

For news publishers, ChatGPT and its imitators are being used widely as productivity tools (though with some caution) to create summaries of articles and facilitate chat-style functions based on in-house material.

AI could herald in a wave of automation for publishers every bit as liberating as the move away from hot metal to computer-led printing and typesetting was in the 1980s, freeing journalists and editors from rote to tasks to let them focus on newsgathering.

Given ChatGPT’s known propensity to hallucinate, and the fact it is merely predicting the answers users want to hear, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to let this technology loose in the wild to create news articles.

Though, as we learned this week – some unscrupulous news publishers already appear to be using generative AI to set up fake sites in order to harvest cheap advertising clicks.

The Bournemouth Observer is an entirely credible-looking online website – but its staffers appear to be fictional, their bylines illustrated with pictures of models and much of its content appears to be written by AI.

The rise of such click-farm websites makes it all the more important that sites based on professional journalism raise their game to keep clear blue water between them and the fakes, and are extremely careful and transparent about the use of generative AI on content production.

The real danger for publishers from ChatGPT is the fact that it answers questions for users without recourse to sources. It has already stolen all our copyrighted news material and is using it as for fuel an information engine which threatens to make us all redundant.

ChatGPT, as it stands, is a business built upon theft.

It has not only stolen our hard-earned information in order to power its model. It then steals our clicks and ad revenue by providing readers with the information they seek without any reference back to the source.

Urgent action is needed by regulators to stop this.

And those publishers currently engaged in negotiations with ChatGPT creator Open AI need to ensure they act with the long-term interests of all journalists and resist the temptation to cut short-term deals. The question is should we be negotiating at all, or just litigating to stop Open AI’s blatant breach of copyright?

The current media scene is in some ways more vibrant now than it was 20 years ago when I started at Press Gazette. The Telegraph, Times, Guardian, FT and Independent – all heavily loss-making back then – are now consistently profitable.

Despite the dire predictions made by some media analysts around the time of the 2008 crash, few major legacy journalism brands have gone. And many new major journalism brands have launched, like Politico, Industry Dive and Insider to name but a few.

If journalism is to survive and thrive in the next phase of the digital age it will need protection from monopolistic tech giants and lawless insurgent platforms like ChatGPT.

But to secure such protection the news business has to prove that it is about more than clicks and scrolls, it has to earn its special place in society.

How news industry must earn its special treatment

Surveys consistently show that UK journalists are among the least trusted in the world.

I spoke at a University of the Third Age event earlier this year before around 200 70+ year-olds. Here, I thought, I would find a print news demographic. But when I asked them if they trusted journalists, or trusted what they read – they literally laughed in my face. I said that when I spoke to young journalists, I always told them to obey the golden rule (central to all religious ethics systems): treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself. “I don’t think many journalists would last long doing that”, snorted one irate septuagenarian.

There are around 50,000 journalists in the UK, according to the latest census data, and many of us are clearly failing to do our good deed for the day – otherwise the esteem our profession is held in would be far higher.

Most journalists, like me, start their careers wanting to be Clark Kent (or maybe the sainted Harold Evans) but many lose their way. And some (like the phone hackers at News of the World and Mirror titles) can even turn out to be more akin to Lex Luthor.

If UK publishers are to prove themselves worthy of the special protection which I believe they need in the digital age then many – I am afraid – need to make some changes. Here’s my shopping list.

Raise press standards. These need to be followed in spirit rather than to the letter. A well-known UK news website was plastered this week with the most intrusive photographs of a grieving family solely because they were related to Hollywood A-lister Robert De Niro. Such pictures would not be allowed in UK privacy law or under the IPSO code, but appeared online because they were taken in New York. A browse through the comments showed how little the readers thought of this. Yet this sort of casual cruelty still persists in some parts of British journalism.

The post-hacking scandal reforms which set up IPSO went a long way, and tabloids in particular are immeasurably better behaved now then when I first started reporting on them in the early 2000s. But IPSO is essentially an improved complaints handing service. Its branding on a member website should be a sign that journalists there uphold the highest ethical and moral standards which start with following that golden rule – something Jeremy Clarkson clearly failed to do with his column attacking Meghan Markle in the most vivid and personal terms.

We need to stop the circular firing squad and industrialised ripping of stories from rivals. It’s a sad reality of the Google age that rewrites of scoops often get more clicks than the scoops themselves. That’s because Google won’t set up a “top stories” box in its search results until after a story has broken, and it places a premium on recency over originality. While follow-ups are part and parcel of journalism, some sites steal stories from their rivals on an industrial scale. Indeed, it can be far more cost-effective to write quick follow-ups than it is to create original journalism. This is annoying for readers, effectively penalises original journalism and is hardly the behaviour of an industry which deserves special treatment. It’s really not much better than getting your articles written by ChatGPT.

We ned to stop the curse of cynical SEO writing based on gaming an algorithm and conning readers. Journalism should be about answering questions. But when the question is ‘What time is the football on?’, is it really a good use of reporter time to write 500 words which bury the answer near the bottom of the piece?

There is always a place for froth and fun in journalism, but not at the expense of verification and adding value. 300-word write-ups of un-checked incidents on Tiktok (which could themselves be deep-fakes generated by AI for all we know) does not constitute reporting. Yet if you dig around in the hinterland of many of our most popular news websites this is often what passes for news.

[Read more: Churnalism 2022 – Where do UK’s leading news websites get their stories from?]

Opinion and campaigns are among the great strengths of British newspapers, but opinionated news is one of the biggest reasons why readers say they do not trust journalism. Readers can smell bias a mile off and they hate it. So keep the opinion pages gutsy and the campaigns brave but clearly label them and keep the news straight.

Good journalism can and does save the world every day, one story at a time.

Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times famously saved hundreds of lives when she refused to leave a besieged refugee compound in East Timor in 1999.

Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian saved hundreds of Caribbean-born Brits from possible deportation thanks to her exposure of the Windrush scandal.

Failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust exposed by the Wolverhampton-based Express and Star in the late 2000s led to a public inquiry and changes that will have saved hundreds of lives since then by halting widespread medical negligence.

UK politicians are less corrupt because they know that every time they meet a possible business contact in a hotel room there could a hidden camera behind the plant pot and it could be a sting for The Sunday Times.

Last year Pippa Crerar at the Mirror saved us all from being governed by a bounder and cad when she revealed the hypocrisy and dishonesty around Downing Street’s adherence to coronavirus rules.

If we don’t take action to ensure generative AI – and big tech – is properly regulated and content creators fairly paid, this sort of journalism will be put at risk.

Get it right and we might just give communities across the UK back their voice.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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