Writing answers before you know the question

“A couple weeks ago, I tried asking Alexa, ‘What’s the latest with Roy Moore?’ She couldn’t help me. But it seems to me that news organizations need to prepare for that question and the logical following conversation sooner rather than later.”

The mandate to “write conversationally” is taking on a whole new meaning in journalism. In a way, it’s something many of us have been doing for years. Television journalists try to write their scripts in the way that people talk, and headlines are moving in that direction. Social media editors know that conversational writing is paramount. Mobile editors know it now too.

And of course, writing for chat and chatbots is not new either. However, it’s primed to move from a format for specific platforms to something more central to the way news organizations communicate with their audiences.

I talk to Alexa every day, I get my weather updates from a cartoon cat on Facebook Messenger, and most of us have been asking Siri or Google for help getting through our days for years. From the Quartz app to text to chat apps, journalists are getting used to filling in the bubble, if you will — to responding to a request (“Alexa, what’s in the news?”) or directing readers through a predetermined text “conversation.” I do not use those quotation marks with shade — I like what journalists are doing on the platforms I just mentioned. And it’s a start for what’s coming. But if we think about what’s on the horizon for chat-based journalism, it’s going to get a lot more complicated.

A “zero UI” future could be on the horizon, as anyone who paid attention to Amy Webb’s ONA17 talk learned, and it means we need to prepare to fundamentally rethink what how we will present the news. People will ask us specific questions, on their schedules, not ours. How will we answer them? How many ways will we presume a question will be asked, and how many responses will we write?

A couple weeks ago, I tried asking Alexa, “What’s the latest with Roy Moore?” She couldn’t help me. But it seems to me that news organizations need to prepare for that question and the logical following conversation sooner rather than later. We are talking about creating high-quality experiences to attract subscribers in our UI world, but what experience is worth paying for in voice? Audiences will want more than just delivery; they’ll want true conversation.

A colleague recently asked me how much I think about “writing for AI.” Although I honestly hadn’t been putting in those terms, I pointed her to one of my current experiments: a copy-editing Slackbot designed to be used by student editors. It’s text, not voice, based, but it’s still a writing and UX challenge. It’s very, very easy to let users down, as we are quickly learning as more and more students use the bot in real-life editing situations. One or two people can’t accommodate every request the bot will get for a particular answer. Of course, that’s surely no mystery — that’s why products are tested. But where is the testing phase when there is breaking news? As we move forward, more and more, we’ll be writing answers before we know the question.

Fundamentally, this is another frontier of journalists’ loss of control over how the audience receives their content. We’ve already been through so much of this, and, tbh, we don’t deal well. The trend shows no sign of slowing down, so I encourage all of us to find a place to experiment with more real conversations.

Laura E. Davis is digital news director of the Annenberg Media Center and assistant professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California.

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Burt Herman   Things get real

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Paul Ford   Go global

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Jake Levine   The return to now

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance