Our podcast: How newsrooms are meeting the challenges of AI, diversity and flexible working

In this episode of Future of Journalism we explore some of the shifts taking place in newsrooms organisations around the world
19th December 2023

In this episode of our podcast we explore our latest Changing Newsrooms report on how news organisations around the world are adapting their working practices to external changes and internal dynamics including AI, diversity and flexible working.


Federica Cherubini is Director of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

Ramaa Sharma is an award-winning Digital Leader, Consultant and Executive Coach. Until recently she was the Senior Digital Editor at BBC News, driving digital transformation across the division of 8,000 journalists. She also worked with the BBC News Board to help facilitate a more diverse and inclusive newsroom.

Host Gretel Kahn is a journalist at the Reuters Institute. Previously, she worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Montreal covering daily news for radio and web.

The podcast

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The transcript

AI in newsrooms | Hybrid and flexible working | The impact of flexible working on diversity | Diversity and talent acquisition | Gender diversity in newsrooms | Challenges to diversifying talent | The importance of newsroom diversity now | Newsrooms in 2024

AI in newsrooms 

Gretel: As people listening might know, 2023 has been a breakout year when it comes to generative AI. With many industries, including journalism, wondering the best practices, and how to deal with the new technology. In your research, how are newsroom leaders thinking about generative AI, and does it present a challenge or an opportunity for them?

Federica: Yeah, so we asked the newsroom leaders what kind of impact generative AI will have on roles and responsibility in the newsrooms. So we stayed quite specific on working practices more than looking generally at content. So as a context, that's what we asked. But interestingly, the overwhelming majority, like 74%, of the newsroom leaders who participated in our survey, think that generative AI will help them do some things more efficiently. And it's only 21% who thought that generative AI will transform workflows and processes, really fundamentally changing every role in the newsroom. And just 2% thought that generative AI will not change how news works. And so it's just a very small percentage thinking no change at all. But the majority thinks, yes. And that comes through also in some of the comments we got: generative AI will help on workflows, it will free up time, it will make different decisions for journalists to do more actual journalism, but the essence of what is done won't change. That's what newsroom leaders seem to think.

Gretel: And to what extent are practical guidelines or training programs being implemented by news publishers to guide their staff through the implementation of AI?

Federica: Yeah, so we've asked that question specifically, and we’re sort of divided in asking a few different options and asking newsroom leaders if they had that thing specifically already in place, if they were working on it, if they were considering it but not done it yet, or if they’re not really considering it. And so 29% of people in our survey said that they have already in place high level principles on how their news organisation would plan to use generative AI. But when it comes to actually having detailed guidelines on how to use it in different circumstances, only 16% have that already in place, but 35% are working on it. It’s much lower when we look at having a designated person to lead all editorial aspects of generative AI, like someone who has it formally in their job description: that's only 16% who already have that in place and still only 24% is actually working on it, whereas the majority is either not considering it or considering it but not done it yet. So there’s a bit more delay in that. And when we look at having training programs in place to educate staff about opportunities and dangers of generative AI, only 9% already have in place a program built on that, while 40% are considering it but actually not getting it done yet.

Hybrid and flexible working 

Gretel: Your series of reports has tracked the evolution of flexible and hybrid working models since the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic is now over, the latest report finds that two-thirds of newsroom leaders who took part in our survey said that their organizations have implemented flexible and hybrid working models with new rules in place for staff. What has been the impact of flexible working models on productivity?

Federica: Absolutely. First, as you said, we've looked hybrid and flexible working for a few years. Now, of course, when we started, the Changing Newsrooms report was 2020. So it was pure pandemic, and everyone had moved to working remotely. So the focus was more on remote. And this year while we were reading also other literature from other industries on how they're thinking about this, it feels like we've almost, I don't want to say moved on from hybrid, but really the focus seems to be much more on flexibility. Whereas we talked a lot about hybrid working before and it seems now we really talk about flexible working. And so we were curious to see actually ‘how flexible?’ And it seems that the more common approach is that it’s ‘some level of flexibility’ which newsroom have settled on. But again, interestingly, while 30% said that staff are required to be in the office some fixed days per week, and the company is actually enforcing the rule and making sure it’s respected, 22% said yes, there are rules in place that require people to be in the office a few fixed days a week, but actually no one is really checking if that's happening. And so I think the news organisations seem to have settled to some degree of flexibility in their [staff’s] working lives.

And now on to productivity as you ask. Interestingly, there has been a lot of talk in the past. Also, we look at that in the past year, about the fact that the hybrid and flexible working was having on productivity. Does it enhance it? Does it hinder it and when you read our report, from other industries there is a lot of talk about productivity paranoia, bosses want to make sure that they have a way to check if their staff are working, which kind of leads to a productivity theatre where people like, seem busy. And it was interesting to read from other reports from outside the news industry, that a lot of leaders in generally seem to be focusing on tracking this productivity with visibility and activity metrics. So I was kinda interested in really thinking about how the news industry is looking at this. And this is in line with what we found the past few years, many of our survey respondents do not actually think that flexible working has had much of an effect. 48% cited productivity is neither increased or decreased as a result of the shift to hybrid and flexible working, and a quarter (26%) think it has increased while 19% said that it has decreased productivity. So it's quite still unclear if there is a view in terms of what's the impact on productivity.

What is interesting, though, because I was reading these reports from other industries, about what kind of metrics we use to track productivity, we were interested in seeing if, because we're shifting the ways we're working, organising our work, if we're also shifting the way we measure it. And so we asked if newsroom leaders thought that their organisation was putting some effort, a lot of effort, no effort in actually measuring productivity. And I think the data point is really interesting from the survey, because nearly half (46%) said that their organisation makes either a small effort to measure productivity or no effort at all.

And then we added an open ended question in the survey asking leaders whether their organisation and teams that changed the way to measure productivity as a result of this, you know, the shift to more flexible working, and if yes, how, and actually, we didn't really get answers that were significant and didn't see big significant changes. And we got a couple of examples, but more from teams not in editorial. So I think it is something we will want to keep an eye on going forward. It seems to be a bit of a disconnect, of, are we actually putting effort in measuring productivity and how are we thinking about it, but it's going to be curious to see what comes up in future years.

The impact of flexible working on diversity 

Gretel: And alongside flexible working models, you guys have also been tracking since 2020 from the Changing Newsrooms report, the role of diversity and how to grow diversity in news organisations. Federica in 2023, what role have flexible working models played in hiring practices for both finding and retaining diverse talent?

Federica: So yeah. Last year’s report, where we started from highlighted how hybrid and flexible working had a positive impact on hiring, not specifically diverse talent, but generally a high positive impact on hiring, but made retention much harder, due to increased difficulties in re establishing a relationship with new hires and developing a sense of belonging to the organisation. So this year, we split the question in two and we asked newsroom leaders, both specifically about what kind of impact hybrid working made on hiring, and specifically, separately, on retention, whereas last year it was just one question. And so interestingly, 52% of newsroom leaders in the survey reported hybrid and flexible working has made recruitment much easier while 28% said it hasn't changed anything. But when we look at retaining talent, 43% said that it made retention much or somewhat easier, and 29% said it it hadn't changed anything.

And then, we looked at what's the impact on, specifically, hiring and retaining diverse talent. And again, from last year's survey, there was sort of a promise of how to increase geographical flexibility, for example, in relation to where to hire talent. For example, being able to hire outside big metropolitan cities where often headquarters of big national organisations are based, where the cost of living is higher, could that have an impact on hiring more diverse talent? And so last year, there was a sort of promise of a positive impact, but we weren't able to make a direct connection.

And I think this year's results show a similar hope – 57% saying that they agree with the statement that hybrid and flexible working can increase our ability to hire diverse talent, and have a positive impact on diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. And we got a few comments from people really putting in a spotlight on the fact that an increased flexibility can help those who have caring responsibility, for example, whether it's children or different caring responsibilities. And so we can see a lot of promise to this and newsroom leaders seem to be hopeful about it. But I still don't think we have a definite link between the two. Although we have quite good examples in the report of how some of newsroom leaders are thinking about it.

Diversity and talent acquisition 

Gretel: Ramaa, of the survey participants, 43% said that their organisation has a systemic and articulated strategy for diversifying talent acquisition, but not so much for planning and commissioning stories. What do you make of that?

Ramaa: Yes, I think it's really interesting that we've been having this diversity conversation for so long, and it's still a conversation about talent. Of course, it helps if you have a diverse workforce that will then invariably bring in new ideas and new perspectives. From the several years of having been studying diversity, and also having had experience in newsrooms, without the reward, without the strategies, without the structures that allow for diversity to flourish, there is a question of how much it actually will matter. And I think that's playing out in the data as well. You know, the figures are quite low, only 37% of leaders say they're thinking about diversity in terms of production and 36% of leaders are saying they're thinking about it in terms of commissioning.

So I think this is a real point to think about, which is when we're talking about diversity and inclusion, is it still an HR issue, or is it an editorial issue? And given the news stories of the moment, given the global and complex nature of the news stories of the moment, diversity in terms of editorial seems to be absolutely crucial. So it'd be interesting to see if this improves over over coming years.

There are exceptions, of course to organisations who see do see this as an opportunity. The Globe and Mail in Canada and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here in the UK are really thinking about diversity not just in terms of talent, but also in terms of their editorial. And let me just share some of their ideas with you. So for example, thenGlobe and Mail is conscious that it is going back to the same sources.

So they now have a very strict audit on making sure that the sources they speak to are always different and diverse, even who they commission as freelance talent, they make sure they have a 30% [of the freelance] budget [dedicated] to actually commission voices that haven't been heard before. They do pop up bureaus in underrepresented areas to get stories that haven't been heard before, as well. Lots of ongoing training around sort of people's biases, and empathy coaches present in the newsroom. There are extra regional pages to improve their geographical coverage. So there's all this incentive to really make sure that they're not just thinking about who they have in the bureau. But they're also thinking about ways of working to make sure diversity is coming through in action, in their journalism.

And similarly, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is establishing some sort of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) KPIs. So again, not just about numbers and who's in the room, they're also thinking more about hiring on potential, not trying to find this perfect candidate that somehow can do it all, but can bring something new. And that's, that's really valuable. They're writing fellowships for underrepresented groups, and also doing some pilots with communities. So that’s just some of the things that two organisations do, there may be others. But largely, we found that the focus tends to be on talent acquisition.

Gender diversity in newsrooms 

Gretel: In the survey results, there's also a distinction between perceived success in gender diversity and lower numbers for political disability and ethnic diversity. Starting with gender, how can we read these perceived successes when it comes to the survey results?

Ramaa: It's really interesting because the data is showing great success in terms of gender, right, whereas if the data that we've done here at the Reuters Institute is saying, actually, there isn't a major improvement, particularly in leadership positions when it comes to gender, so there is this curiosity of people perceiving better gender representation, but actually, it's not really playing out when we look at leadership roles. Now, of course, we can't always make direct comparisons. But there is a sort of sense of like, perhaps as more visibility, and more women are talking about this, or there are more, possibly more campaigns, there may be a few appointments that seem to be an improvement in specific organisations. But generally speaking, the wider research is not showing huge amounts of difference, though people are feeling that gender representation is much better than it has been in previous years.

Challenges to diversifying talent 

Gretel: And what about the other types of diversity and representation numbers, including political, disability, ethnic, etc?

Ramaa: So 57% of our respondents said they can't find the talent. Now, this is really curious, because when we do our interviews, depending on who we interview, of course, there are a number of leaders that are saying, well, actually, you can't find the talent if you're looking for this perfect unicorn-type person who can tick every single box. But if you are prepared to find people, and occasionally that might be on hiring on potential, or it might be seeing what they can bring that others cannot bring, then actually won't be difficult to find the talent. And then there's also some questions from our interviews, that are saying, well, actually, how committed are we to looking for diverse talent? How much does it really matter to the organisation? And so 17% of people are still not sure why we should do diversity. So there's a bit about commitment. How much effort is actually being made to look for that talent? And if so when it's not perfect. Are we still taking chances?

The importance of newsroom diversity now 

Gretel: Ramaa, the report has been going on for three years now. What changes have you seen reflected throughout the past three years when it comes to diversity in newsrooms?

Ramaa: So as we'll remember, in 2020, there was the big push post the George Floyd murder, there was a lot of announcements, a lot of initiatives, a lot of campaigns. It's really interesting speaking to a number of leaders for this report, there's questions about, well, what's been the result? What's actually changed? Where are these initiatives? Where has the money been spent? There are these questions that are now being raised. And so there does feel like there's a bit of a slowing down. I mean, of course, we're in a different world. Now. We're post-pandemic, there's wars, cost of living crises, we're in a different place. But some are saying, well, maybe those are just excuses. Diversity, you could argue, is even more important in the current climate, so there feels like there is a slowing down. And as I mentioned before, there are also these green shoots, where organisations are realising actually, we've got to do things differently.

To share another example, is a grassroots organisation based in India, called Khabar Lahariya. And it speaks to the talent piece that we were talking about before, as well, which is an organisation that was created to speak to the marginalised and underrepresented groups. And they became extraordinarily successful that now the mainstream organisations in India are wanting their content and wanting their talent. And they did that by starting off as sort of a training provision first, and then morphing into a sort of journalistic outfit. And they continue to make sure that training is a big part of their organisation. So they are showing that you can really get into the grassroots, understand what's happening on the ground, create good journalism, and that actually benefits the wider ecosystem as well. So you know, perhaps now we'll see more of that kind of innovation going forward.

Newsrooms in 2024 

Gretel: And finally, Federica, as we enter into 2024, what trends or developments do you anticipate shaping the future of news organisations and their working practices?

Federica: There are a few open questions here. And interestingly, I see a theme, even if we look at it three different issues that we cover in the report, hybrid or flexible working, AI and approaches to diversity, I think seems once more like a bit of a pivotal moment for the news industry, where we can really decide what kind of approach are we taking. The industry seems to be often a bit more reactive and proactive in handling some of these issues. Now, of course, it's a lot of how it's built into the news DNA of being proactive and reactive, you know, breaking news and always moving forward to what's coming, what's happening now, and what's going to come next, and not much time to stop and think about and evaluating how we're doing things. And I think that sort of comes through, that's a bit of my personal view of what are the findings of the report.

Take hybrid working. We've settled on some flexibility, some are measuring if it's happening, some have a role, but not really measuring it. But at the same time, a finding we have not mentioned is that some newsroom leaders are really worried again, we saw it last year and again this year, about the sense of belonging that their employees are building towards their organisation. So again, are we just settling on some sort of level of flexibility which feels a bit more like a compromise? Sometimes, you know, yes, we recognise we have more flexibility, but we want you in the office a few days. There is a worry about a sense of belonging, but what are we going to do about it, how are we going to build that kind of focus on the representation and inclusivity in an organisation that makes people feel that they belong, that they're a part of it, which of course comes through also in the diversity question.

Again, as Ramaa was saying, we see more initiatives than systematic approaches to solving the problem or focusing just on talent. Another point of discussion we open in the report, and I think it's something that we should keep an eye on is, what kind of metrics we're using to define this. A lot of especially when we look at diversity metrics, a lot of metrics are focusing on measuring headcount. But that doesn't necessarily take fully into consideration intersectionality. I know it's complex, some countries around the world don't even allow you to track specific data about diversity for privacy reasons. So it is a very complex and complicated matter yhat moves quite quickly. But I think there is a sense of how fully systematic and articulated are we going to be in approaching this?

And lastly, I think that comes through also when we look at AI. So we called the approach a cautious approach towards AI. And of course, I am not advocating for jumping in without thinking about consequences. Of course, the stakes are high. And we should absolutely do this in a responsible way. But, again, the fact that 74% of newsroom leaders really think that yes, it will change a bit how we do things, but more in terms of how things move some of the practices, without really fundamentally affecting how we do the job, it seems a bit cautious when the world around us changes so fast. So by all means, I'm not saying don't be cautious. But again, I think it will help those kind of organisations who have, a full 360 approach. One of the example we cited in the report on AI is Swedish Radio. Because we found it very interesting that they have one person in charge, that person was a news commissioner. So it's an editorial person who works together with every other aspect of the business on really thinking about how we're going to leverage this, what do we want to preserve? But how do we then use this to our advantage?

So I want to see what's happening in the next year in terms of how much is the news industry going to be able to make the most of all of these different aspects and turn them into something that is good for them and their audience and their teams, versus being a bit more reactive and first waiting to see what happens and then finding an approach. Ramaa, what do you think? What are you seeing?

Ramaa: Yeah, I think on the AI point, I think there's just going to also be questions about how reliable the information is, that's going to come back. Invariably, lenses and biases, there’s going to be questions about, you know, how does that all play into how the technology is made and produced and used? I think those are questions that are coming up with, you know, any kind of technology now. Equally, thinking a lot about data and measurements and even when we ask questions around belonging and inclusion of how they might differ depending on who you ask.

Gretel: Well, I don't think any of these issues are going to go away anytime soon. So I guess we'll see how they develop in the next year. But thank you both Federica and Ramaa for joining us today.