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.

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