Media and journalism issues

[ANALYSIS] The future of news

Maria A. Ressa

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[ANALYSIS] The future of news

Emil Mercado

What will survive in the age of machines? Investigative journalism built on an ecosystem of federated news organizations anchored on facts.

It’s bleak. Given present trends, the death of the news business can happen within a year or two, directly linked to the corruption of the public information ecosystem enabled by Big Tech. 

This year, we’re already seeing massive layoffs, and it’s expected to get worse. I sit on the board of several news organizations, two of them American, and drops in both revenue and distribution (which for digital news are connected) continue.

This acceleration seemed triggered by the November 2022 launch of ChatGPT and the succeeding arms race for generative AI. Predictably, Big Tech pushed generative AI, and even journalism schools, foundations and NGOs are encouraging quick adoption without realizing that we’re again committing the same mistake we did by putting the share button on our websites. We’re taking Big Tech at face value, falling for its hype and lobbying – and, again, giving these companies our data and relationships. 

Bloomberg took an expensive approach: use open source LLM (or large language models) then train it on your data. Moat it so that other LLMs won’t be able to use your output as training data. It brings its own problems, aside from the cost. Rappler did what we could afford, and in June 2023, we rolled out our first experiment with generative AI: adding a three-bullet point summary for every article on our site. By then we began to fear that Big Tech was going to cut off the distribution of news.

What’s clear is that journalism won’t survive if we don’t build our own tech. 

There are only three ways a website gets traffic: direct, social, and search. Generative AI search was clear with Bing, sparking the search war. Google soon began experiments publicly and rolled out SGE, Search Generative Experience, in 125 countries, including the United States and the Philippines. (While many of the companies rolling out LLMs said that news groups could opt out, it was impossible to do that with SGE and Google: it built its LLM on top of search so if a news group opted out, it would disappear from the internet.) 

By Q1 2023, it became clear that search, which brings 60-69% of Rappler traffic, could disappear. That same quarter, social media referrals dropped without any warning.

Falling off the cliff

Elon Musk bought Twitter in late October 2022. Within a month, he was announcing policy decisions publicly and changing his mind as quickly. He was doxing critics on the platform and brigading, and by January 2023, he dissolved Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council and later fired his trust & safety team. 

In January 2023, Facebook/Meta, the world’s largest distributor of news, began aggressively choking traffic to news sites. Traffic fell off the cliff in May. Similarweb data showed that by August 2023, global Facebook referral traffic to the top 30 news sites was down 62%. News sites like the Guardian and Business Insider dropped up to 80%. Buzzfeed declined 72% then, perhaps contributing to its decision to shut down its news group.

What Rappler did

We decided to build our own technology, connecting a chat app directly to our news feed. We built it on the Matrix protocol, open source, secure, decentralized – and used by countries which value data privacy like Germany and France. 

Instead of throwing our community back into the toxic sludge of social media where they are insidiously manipulated, we decided to build a safe space, where real conversations and relationships can develop. 

Like Project Agos, our climate and disaster risk reduction campaign, we know we can create a positive feedback loop between government and the people that can lead to real-time action. 

This is our announcement of our quiet matrix protocol roll-out last December. Technology built by journalists is also governed by our standards & ethics manual, making our community guidelines simple.

When the trends became clear by Q1 2023, we pivoted quickly and began building community tech. In the graph below of unique users from Similarweb, you can see the top Philippine news sites: Inquirer is the top newspaper followed by PhilStar (both about 40 years old); GMANetwork is the top television station (63 years old), followed by ABS-CBN (78 years old). Rappler is 12 years old, with about 1/10th of these groups’ newsgathering resources. 

Focus on the blue line for Rappler, and you can see that it began rising in July 2023, a month after we rolled out generative AI summaries, implemented editorial shifts in form and substance – of video, unique, in-depth stories, and newsletters – moves driven by data from the user journey through our site. 

Our user base grew steadily as we continued our tech build and evolved our editorial processes and workflows. By November 2023, Rappler surpassed all other Philippine news groups with the largest Filipino community.  

This upward trend continued into 2024. Rappler also tops Philippine news sites in deduplicated audience (meaning across all devices). Again, this is an upward trend that started in July 2023.

What’s ahead

The race is to be able to bring our community together before the ability to trawl social media and the referral traffic from search ends. As generative AI deluges the internet with deepfakes (or synthetic media) and low-quality content, public distrust and cynicism will increase because of the lack of information integrity. That will have an impact on the behavior of people and society, and the types of governments we elect. I’ve long said: without facts, you can’t have truth; without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times like climate change. 

At Rappler, our community will have a safe space, where facts are clear, and constructive debate can enable the processes of a strong democracy. In the coming year, we hope to be able to connect at least four other independent news groups through our matrix protocol chat app. That federation allows us to build a global network of news bottom up – an extremely valuable community of TRUST. 

We can govern this group using a similar system as the Internet Governance Forum, without one group controlling policies and direction. That could include a quality ad network which can rival present-day ads spewed into the corrupted public landscape. Quality can win, especially if you have a global community focused on facts and the values that strengthen democracy.

In a federated system of news organizations, we can protect our data with a tech stack and execution that can help us collectively create a more sophisticated LLM, a new form of news consumption with chatbots using generative AI we can anchor on facts

To illustrate: in the next few months, Rappler will be finishing its ontology: building a knowledge graph that will anchor our LLM using GraphRAG to ensure the integrity of information that our chatbot delivers. This integrates the machine into the process of journalism in a way that allows machine-generated content that is anchored on facts. This is a far more labor- and time-intensive execution of a project we rolled out in 2022, when we created the first Philippine politics knowledge graph that allowed GPT3 to accurately generate nearly 50,000 pages served to a public front-end.

Generative AI could explore a wealth of possibilities that journalism hasn’t touched. Unlike past machine learning and AI, this has the ability to create, to code, to self-improve. But the difference in our execution is that it is both back-end and front-end, machine and human, and more importantly, we assure the public of fact-based, evidence-based information. 

So what is the future of news? 

When you hold power to account, it’s called journalism. 

So what will survive in the age of machines? Investigative journalism built on this ecosystem. Think fractal stories, which challenge the traditional linear narrative structure. Like hyperlinks, but far more recursive, combining (wo)man and machine. 

This approach encourages exploration and discovery, leading to greater depth and a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human experience. This restores nuance, critical thinking, and trust back into the public sphere. And engages communities in meaningful ways. – Rappler.com

2 comments

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  1. ET

    I appreciate Rappler’s effort, especially in building “a safe space, where real conversations and relationships can develop.” In addition, I congratulate Rappler for having “surpassed all other Philippine news groups with the largest Filipino community” and topping “Philippine news sites in deduplicated audience (meaning across all devices).” We cannot give sufficient financial support to Rappler in these challenging economic times, but these meager amounts come from our critical, truth-seeking minds and caring hearts.

    1. MR

      Thank you – as always -for your support! It’s great to see your thoughts on our app as well 🙂

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Maria Ressa

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.