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March 28, 2024, 11:13 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Washington Post’s first AI strategy editor talks LLMs in the newsroom

Phoebe Connelly on prompt training, AI anxieties, and her first-of-its-kind role

As some newsroom roles go the way of the dinosaurs, brand new jobs are being born. This interview is part of an occasional series of Q&As with people who are the first to hold their title in their newsroom. Read through the rest here.

black and white headshot of phoebe connelly, senior editor for AI strategy and innovation at the Washington PostPhoebe Connelly is The Washington Post’s first-ever senior editor for AI strategy and innovation. Appointed to the role in February, Connelly joins a wave of dedicated AI editorial and product strategists entering major newsrooms. Outlets including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are actively hiring for similar roles.

At the Post, Connelly’s job, first and foremost, is to experiment. She’ll be overseeing the development of tools and processes that bring generative AI into the newsroom, at all levels, while maintaining editorial standards.

It’s no small task. Several outlets have already set prime examples for what not to do when it comes to AI adoption. Shoddy copy, PR crises, and factual inaccuracies have plagued early adopters of ChatGPT, such as Sports Illustrated, CNET, and Gizmodo.

But after years leading the Post’s Next Generation initiative to bring younger readers to the publication — another first-of-its-kind role — Connelly says she’s up for the challenge. I chatted with her over email to learn more about what led her to this unique role, and what she hopes to do with it. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Deck: How “first” is this position? Is it the first time that someone has held the title of editor for AI strategy and innovation in your newsroom? Have you seen other newsrooms create similar positions?

Phoebe Connelly: I’m the first person with this title at The Washington Post, and after me the title is going to a LLM. (Kidding, I hope.)

As with most new roles, there is a need for my role because of the many people who are already working with AI and want to see us move faster. Meghan Hoyer, head of data journalism in the newsroom, has an incredible track record and I’m very fortunate to now get to be in weekly meetings with Sam Han, who is the director of AI on our engineering team.

I think there is someone at almost every major organization who has been asked to add AI to their portfolio. I joked with Zach Seward [editorial director of AI at the New York Times] that we should start our own support group for those “newly charged with figuring out AI.” Please reach out; we’re considering organizing a help line.

Deck: What is your job?

Connelly: Working across our newsroom and product teams to launch ambitious, delightful AI news experiences for our users. Getting our newsroom access to AI-powered tools that let us do our jobs faster. Getting to convene complex conversations about how we employ this new tool in ways that meet our rigorous standards.

I have a dual reporting structure to [executive editor] Sally Buzbee and [chief technology officer] Vineet Khosla — our hope is this cross-functional structure will ensure we are pulling from the whole company to build with generative AI.

Of course, first on my list was how we can better serve our readers.

Deck: What did working with AI look like in The Washington Post newsroom before this role was created? How do you expect that to change?

Connelly: Machine learning and artificial intelligence have been employed by the Post for years, and we are fortunate enough to have many skilled technologists on staff.

Last year, the Next Generation team started some experiments that leveraged generative AI. We held a company wide hackathon and our product manager, Tony Guzman started prototyping news delivery surfaces that incorporated generative AI.

The announcement of a new role is a moment that gets everyone thinking about what is possible. Now my colleagues know to come to me with ideas they’d like to see us pursue. Newsrooms are deeply collaborative places, used to forming ad hoc teams around a breaking story or pairing up to maximize reporting resources. Tackling a new technology in that type of collaborative environment is thrilling.

Deck: What previous experiences — personal, professional, educational — led you to this job?

Connelly: In my first role at the Post — as a producer on the video team — I was asked to attend a meeting about our video player that turned into multiple meetings, which turned into a proposal to build a new video CMS. That CMS is now part of Arc XP.

Getting a crash course in product development was formative. My partner in building video products was [director of engineering] Vidya Viswanathan. She was so generous with her time, willing to talk through any problem and eager to figure out how to work with the particular rhythm of a newsroom. I learned so much working with her. We sit right next to each other again — it’s like coming home.

Building the Next Gen team really forced me to think through how an organization can tackle new problems while maintaining its core values. And I got to work with simply the most talented slice of people across the Post. We as an industry should set up more short-term teams. It was incredible to work fast and hard at a problem for two years and see what change we could accomplish.

My dad just retired from the Chicago Transit Authority. In his farewell speech he said, “The glass is always half full for me.” I am definitely my father’s daughter. I’m always looking for the upside, the opportunity. And yes, if we take a business trip together I will make you take public transit.

Deck: There is a lot of anxiety in journalism at the moment around job displacement due to AI adoption. How do you plan on addressing anxieties in your own newsroom?

Connelly: We all need to encourage experimentation with generative AI. Once it stops being an idea and becomes a tool, then we can move on to the fun part which is figuring out what uses we can put it to.

I’m not afraid of AI as a journalist. We are so good at leveraging new tools to report and deliver the news. Generative AI is just the latest. Journalists introduce new facts into the conversation, and we do this through multiple-sourced, transparent reporting. This skill set and our core values are even more valuable in an AI-mediated landscape.

Deck: How do you think about newsroom talent as it relates to AI? In your role, will you be training up journalists at The Washington Post on how to best use AI tools, or also bringing prompt engineers and other AI specialists into the newsroom to use these tools?

Connelly: We just completed our first round of prompt training in the newsroom! We were led by the excellent David Caswellhis piece for the Reuters Institute is great reading if you are trying to figure out where to start.

Deck: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities for being the first AI strategist — or the first anything — at a news organization?

Connelly: This is my second “first-of-a-kind” position. The Next Gen team was a totally new type of team for the Post. I found it helpful to remind myself that we had two jobs, where a lot of teams only had one: We had to define what our mission was, and we had to execute on it. Most jobs, you are handed the plan, the mission, when you start. I find thinking about it as a two part job makes the wild range of tasks you might face in a week make more sense.

First-of-their-kind jobs are as much about culture change as they are about the task. It’s not enough that I get us thoughtfully using generative AI — I need to leave the newsroom feeling good about how we got there.

Photo of Phoebe Connelly by Elliot O’Donovan, courtesy of The Washington Post. Hedge maze illustration created with Midjourney.

Andrew Deck is a generative AI staff writer at Nieman Lab. Have tips about how AI is being used in your newsroom? You can reach Andrew via email (andrew_deck@harvard.edu), Twitter (@decka227), or Signal (+1 203-841-6241).
POSTED     March 28, 2024, 11:13 a.m.
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