Inside the Newsroom: Tech Journalists Discuss AI, the Complexity of Technology, and the Future of Journalism

June 17, 2024
Jennifer Yoder
Inside the Newsroom: Tech Journalists Discuss AI, the Complexity of Technology, and the Future of Journalism

Panelists: Mark Albertson from SiliconANGLE, Scott Budman from NBC Bay Area, Don Clark from The New York Times, and Meghan Fintland, PRSA Silicon Valley Chapter President and Head of Global PR at Rubrik

(Photo by Paul Sakuma)

On Wednesday, June 5th, 2024, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Silicon Valley Chapter hosted a panel discussion titled "Inside the Newsroom: Tech'' at AMD in San Jose. Moderated by Meghan Fintland, PRSA Silicon Valley Chapter President and Head of Global PR at Rubrik, the event brought together three distinguished journalists – Scott Budman from NBC News Bay Area, Don Clark from The New York Times, and Mark Albertson from SiliconANGLE. The three of them shared their insights on the current challenges and opportunities in tech journalism.

The Q&A-style format allowed audience members to engage with the panelists, asking questions alongside submitted queries from PRSA members. The discussion quickly delved into the increasing complexity of technology emerging from Silicon Valley, with all three journalists commenting on how difficult it's become to report effectively. Moreover, rapid technology and application advancements add to the challenge. 

As the conversation turned to artificial intelligence (AI), the journalists expressed reservations about its current capabilities and questioned the value of its use. Don Clark noted that technology was already complex before the advent of generative AI, but now the intricacies of it all have reached an insane level. He expressed frustration with companies using buzzwords like "platform" and "solution" in every sentence when describing their offerings. "Folks want to describe their companies in the most grandiose terms. You make chips – go ahead and say that," Clark remarked, emphasizing the need for simplicity in communication. He pointed out that the excessive use of jargon makes it challenging for readers to understand the technology, as it often revolves around corporate problems that not everyone can relate to or comprehend the need for a solution.

Albertson added that even with the tsunami of coverage AI has received over the past couple of years, the technology is still in its early stages. "This tech burst on the scene and became a household name before it was fully baked," he said, noting that tools like ChatGPT are "not quite there" and cannot capture the essence and nuance of how things are connected, particularly within enterprise tech.

Don Clark expressed his skepticism on the current state of AI, predicting an impending "AI disappointment phase" where the technology fails to live up to the lofty promises made by leading AI companies. While acknowledging AI's impact in software programming, chip layout, and testing, Clark questioned the lack of tangible results in other domains. "AI companies have promised to deliver all of this cool stuff, but where is it?" he asked, suggesting that the technology, in its current state, is a solution looking for a problem. 

Clark's comments raised a fundamental question: What are we trying to solve with AI, and how will it be applied to revolutionize our lives beyond the limited successes seen thus far? And at what cost?

Scott Budman drew parallels between the current AI hype and the early days of the internet, recalling the buzz and excitement surrounding the technology's potential. However, he also acknowledged the need for caution, citing examples of AI's quirks, such as "Google telling you to put glue on your pizza," as reported by Katie Notopoulos in her article published in The New York Times in May 2024. Budman also emphasized the importance of maintaining a human touch in reporting, stating, "We don't use it in the newsroom or in any story because we want the humanity to show through." He suggested that AI, much like the internet, may eventually find its place as a more mundane but useful tool for enhancing productivity and connectivity rather than being the game-changer it is often portrayed to be.

Such is the case for Mark Albertson, who believes that mundane AI applications will have a huge influence on purchasing decisions. He said that companies are processing data on the edge, moving from a "huge mega-lift to something more manageable," making AI more accessible and practical for everyday use. Because of that, consumers will seek out appliances and gadgets that boast AI-ready capabilities – especially those agents that focus on specific tasks and perform them well, like AI notetakers.

Twice during the event, audio distortions interrupted the discussion, prompting the panelists to chuckle and joke about AI being alive and unhappy with the conversation about its abilities or lack thereof. While the jokes provided a moment of levity and crowd engagement, they also hinted at a lingering unease about our limited understanding and lack of trust. 

The discussion continued to raise additional concerns about the dark side of AI, with Albertson sharing an anecdote from a tech conference a few years back where he quoted a Microsoft spokesperson who said, “The dirty secret about AI is that it's dirty," referring to the significant amount of computing power and energy required by AI, making sustainability a challenge. Clark suggested that while there is this AI race, where everyone participating says they want to be more sustainable, do they really want to not build that data center for the sake of the environment? 

Silicon Valley Audiences Are Hip to Tech

Despite the focus on AI's potential downsides and sustainability challenges, the journalists stressed the importance of holistic reporting and catering to audience preferences on trending topics. Mike Sanchez of AMD asked if their readers typically opted for short-form or long-form content, all three panelists agreed that both formats have their merits. They confirmed that their readers, especially in Silicon Valley, appreciate in-depth coverage and reporting on complicated topics. Budman pointed out that people want to be in the know and geek out, particularly in a region where their neighbors are likely employees at major tech companies.

The Future of Journalism in the Age of AI

The discussion naturally led to the future of journalism itself, another central theme of the panel. "You see major universities cutting back on the arts, which, by the way, hurts PR and tech," Budman said. The panelists expressed that regardless of the industry’s contraction there is still a huge need for journalism, especially in tech. There is a desperate need to report the truth, particularly around the rise of AI-generated content created by journalists and professionals alike. 

Albertson warned about the potential for misuse and the spread of disinformation, stating, "There is a whole ecosystem of writers out there that can write what they want without any filter." He emphasized the importance of editorial oversight, pointing out that he, along with his fellow journalists on stage, has editors who review their work before it's distributed, sometimes instantaneously, to millions of people. Without the checks and balances system provided by traditional newsrooms, Albertson cautioned, "it opens the door for real abuse," a prospect that deeply concerns him. 

Budman echoed these fears about the spread of disinformation, largely attributed to the politics of reporting and social media. Being idealistic, he believes that with the efforts of informed journalists and proper, legitimate reporting, society would be able to hold the Elon Musks of the world accountable and continue to tell the truth about technology, even when massive companies hold significant power, in an effort to protect and inform the public.

Still, they all found hope in the presence of young people entering the newsroom and offered valuable advice for recent college graduates and aspiring communicators. Don Clark recommends learning the technology at a deeper level than you need to do the transaction of pitching the story, adding, "You're building your brand as a communicator, and that's more important than just what the client wants”. Clark encouraged creators to build their own brand by being knowledgeable, responsive, and going the extra mile. He also stressed the importance of learning about all aspects of the companies they cover, including their financials and what makes them profitable. Journalists will come back to you if you leave the impression of being smart. 

Scott Budman underscored the importance of adaptability, suggesting that hopefuls should be flexible when learning to use different communication styles and media platforms. He also expressed gratitude to PR professionals for bridging the connection between journalists and CEOs, noting that there is always a story to be told, and those relationships help find it. Budman encourages and welcomes pitches that offer unique angles, as he's constantly looking for the connection between humans and technology.

Mark Albertson's advice was simple yet powerful: "If you know what you like to do, do it! And see where it leads you." He urged aspiring communicators to let their passions guide them, trusting that success and financial stability will follow.

The "Inside the Newsroom: Tech" panel provided a glimpse into the minds of top tech journalists with decades of combined experience reporting on Silicon Valley's evolution. Budman, Clark, and Albertson offered unique insights into their struggles and hopes for the future of their industry, as they continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape of technology and its impact on society. As technology continues to shape everything around us, in-person, open dialogues like this are crucial for fostering understanding, collaboration, and responsible reporting.

The PRSA Silicon Valley Chapter thanks sponsors Rubrik for providing food and AMD for hosting the event. Special thanks to the organizers, including Tara Thomas, Jeannie Entin, Mark Lewis, Mike Sanchez, and Meghan Fintland for making this insightful event a success.

PRSASV Board Members: Gerard Corbett, Mike Sanchez, Meghan Fintland, David Vossbrink, Curtis Sparrer, JoAnn Yamani, Jeannie Entin, and Tara Thomas Photo by Paul Sakuma

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Jennifer Yoder is a Silicon Valley-based communications professional and a new member of the PRSA Silicon Valley Chapter.

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