Evening Standard digital editor in chief David Tomchak believes journalists have nothing to fear from AI-powered robots.
He spoke to Press Gazette as he prepares to join our sister title New Statesman as head of digital and innovation in September and as he this month joins the Oxford Internet Institute as a Visiting Policy Fellow to examine the use of AI in the media.
The issue of AI and journalism was in the news this week as MSN laid off 27 journalists and instead deployed robots to curate content on its network of websites and also write headlines, choose pictures and prioritise placement on the page. This led to embarrassment as AI used the wrong picture of pop band member Little Mix to illustrate a story about racism.
Tomchak said: “I know that news in particular is quite a controversial place to let loose AI because the potential for mistakes is really quite dangerous and editors can go to jail….
“But having read what AI’s can write, they can write really well. You can write up company results with it. It frees up journalists who would otherwise be going through a whole bunch of company results and taking out the data to do other stuff that actually requires investigative skills.
“The whole idea is that machines make it easier, they don’t take over. AIs can write some aspects of what we do – the onerous tasks – but humans still need to be involved in the editing process (to ensure accuracy, tone etc.).”
He added: “It’s inevitable that machines will continue to improve how we do our work by taking away some of the more mundane tasks. We shouldn’t be scared of it.”
Tomchak joins the New Statesman with a remit to lead the digital expansion of the title at a time when many publishers – such as Quartz, Vice, Buzzfeed and The Atlantic – are retrenching in the face of the economic turmoil wrought by Covid-19.
He remains optimistic about the future of the industry despite the current economic turmoil.
“Digital journalism has all kinds of potential where companies identify the opportunity, address it properly and don’t try to do everything all the time,” he said. “If you start measuring your success around audience and around influence, digital is really where it’s at. ”
Before joining the Evening Standard three years ago Tomchak was deputy director of communications for Number Ten Downing Street. Does that raise any issues for him going to a left of centre title like the New Statesman?
He says: “I’m politically agnostic. I’m not a member of any political party. I studied international relations so I studied the history and philosophy of politics and that put me off hanging my hat on any one party.
“When was working at Downing Street I was a civil servant, so it was not political…
“Publications need to talk to their audience and people need to feel like their ideas are reflected. But they also need to be challenged and I feel having a variety of different voices in a publication is useful and ultimately good for the audience.”