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FT editor Lionel Barber says 'algorithms are not going to take over' and he still believes in 'value and future of print'

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber has given his predictions for the future of financial journalism, saying he still believes in the power of print and that algorithms “are not going to take over”.

Barber also predicted that the news business is on the cusp of a “second technology revolution”.

Delivering the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University last night, Barber said: “We are rapidly approaching the moment where all text can be understood by machines – a revolution as big as the launch of the internet.

“Routine tasks like writing company earnings and stock market reports will disappear. The next AI phase will be even more profound, with speech to text, the processing of images and, yes, language.”

Continuing his predictions for the future of news, Barber said “the algorithms are not going to take over”.

“The bankers, investors and spooks who need trustworthy information will be even more prepared to pay plenty for reliable news,” he said.

“That’s why we have seen a Brexit bounce and the New York Times has witnessed a Trump bump.  And it’s why low barriers to entry will allow niche news start-ups with no legacy costs to spring up, a little like the hedge funds offering specialist knowledge after Big Bang.”

The FT is closing in on 1m paying readers, more than three quarters of whom are digital subscribers, Barber revealed.

Although the internet and its “giant aggregators” are usually blamed for “coarsening civic discourse, creating echo chambers, monopolising ad revenues, influencing elections”, Barber said, it has also led to an “explosion of creativity and new forms of rich storytelling”.

Barber went on to share what he called his “most counter-intuitive” prediction: that print is here to stay.

He said: “I still believe in the value and future of print: the smart, edited snapshot of the news, with intelligent analysis and authoritative commentary.

“In the age of information overload, there has to be a place in the market for print, especially at the weekend.”

In a Q&A after his speech, Barber acknowledged that print “is in decline” but added: “Magazines, which also count as print, are they going to just disappear? No. Look at the Spectator, look at the sales of Private Eye.”

He said the FT’s advantage is that it is a specialist publication, suggesting that general news titles need to find their “competitive advantage”and their own specialism to exploit.

“It’s a bit harder in general news but if you look at some of the quality reporting, I’m thinking [of] Buzzfeed’s investigation on the suspicious killing of Russians on British soil. It was a brilliant investigation.

“There is still room for [depth] in original reporting. You can’t go a mile wide inch deep, and you can’t put yourself at the mercy of the algorithm ie Facebook.”

Also in his speech, Barber listed the biggest challenges facing financial journalism including the growth of PR, black PR undermining reputations and independent journalism, and the rise of private markets over public ones making it harder for journalists to access information.

He added: “The encroachment of the law via gagging injunctions, non disclosure agreements and the chilling new notion of confidentiality.

“And, yes, the spectre of state-sponsored regulation of the press.”

Read Barber’s full lecture here.

Picture: FT

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