Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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From the Newsroom: What will future hold for news?

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

When two newspaper editors get together for coffee, there is a lot of good conversation. So needless to say, when I met up with my old boss and current friend Lou Brancaccio at the local Starbucks this week, we solved all of the problems of journalism in an hour.

Well, some of them, at least.

As I recall Lou and I both came to The Columbian full time in 1999. He was the new managing editor, and I was a temporary, later made permanent, business reporter. We didn’t have too much interaction for the first few months, until he decided to create a standalone business section and named me as its editor. Looking back, it was perhaps the best job I have ever had, with the perfect combination of writing, editing and freedom to try new things. Thanks, Lou!

Later, after I had taken a business reporting job at The Oregonian that I didn’t like nearly as well, Lou helped me again. He hired me back to be The Columbian’s metro editor, in charge of most of the local reporters. I did that job for a long, long time. Finally, I took over the top job when he retired as editor in February 2017. In other words, Lou has been better for my career than I ever was.

So it was a pleasure to see him and talk shop for an hour. We both believe strongly in community news. We think there will be a place for it long into the future, even if it is mostly published online instead of on paper. But we disagree on some of the specifics.

For example, will there be full-time reporters in the future, or will everyone be a freelancer? Take the taxi business. A decade ago, if you needed a ride to the airport, you might call a taxi company or a shuttle service, and their employee would drive you. Nowadays, you use your smartphone to summon a Lyft or Uber, and an independent contractor picks you up in their own private vehicle.

This “gig economy” now extends to journalism. I know a half-dozen former news employees in the Portland area who are now making their living as freelance writers and photographers. Some are traveling the country to cover assignments, while others find stories in Oregon that national publications will buy.

Lou thinks there will be more of this, with teams of employee editors to coordinate the freelancers. I think there will still be quite a few staff writers; it’s too hard to hire freelancers to tell long-running stories like replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge or redeveloping the Vancouver waterfront.

I think that we’ll be using more tools to do our reporting jobs, including artificial intelligence. Recently I received a survey asking about this topic. AI can be applied to a number of industries — I got a news release today about how a grocery chain is using it in the produce department.

In our business, artificial intelligence is already used to write simple stories, such as corporate earnings reports for the Business section or game stories for Sports. We aren’t doing that here, but I can see the advantages, as it frees reporters to do higher-level work.

Reporters can also use AI as a tool, perhaps to help search public records for relevant information. In the marketing department, it could have the ability to learn about what sorts of stories paying customers look at and flagging stories of interest to individual readers.

Although it didn’t come up in our conversation, I think Lou and I would both agree that however news gathering and delivery changes in the future, we’ll want to adhere to high standards of fairness, transparency and accuracy. Although partisans like to throw accusations at news media for their own purposes, the best quality news still comes from newspapers, particularly community newspapers. I don’t see that changing.

As we finished our coffee, Lou mentioned that he and his wife would soon be returning to their Florida home for the winter, and invited me and my wife to come for a visit. I would like that very much, particularly if he is in the mood to make some of his Italian wedding soup. Lou is a very, very good cook!

Craig Brown is The Columbian’s editor. 360-735-4514 or craig.brown@columbian.com

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