David Swan, technology reporter at The Australian

David Swan, Tech reporter at The Australian at the Henley Club. Photo by Imogen Bailey.
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"An Artificial Intelligence (AI) [robot] could do that and is doing that." Imogen Bailey speaks to tech reporter David Swan, from The Australian, about the technological advancements in journalism.

I was reading that you have been doing journalism since you were 14, reviewing mobile phone games for Midlet Review. How did that come about?

I was a big fan of that website in particular, I was big into games and mobile phone games were just starting out around then. It’d upgraded slightly from that black and white snake deal to, still, pretty crappy, but you could download files on to your phone and there’d be colour, and I remember being in to that website and checking out which games would be good to download. I contacted them and just asked if I could contribute. I hadn’t done any journalism before but I thought, ‘this is pretty straightforward, it’s only 500 or 600 words about your thoughts on a game’, and he was like ‘yeah absolutely’ and paid me $5 per review, I’d do one per week.

So at 14 I had my first paid journalism gig and I’d use it for buying lunch from the canteen; I could pay myself weekly for a chicken burger. It was awesome. I did that for three years or so, I think it was good experience as well, dealing with an editor and deadlines and sticking to word count.

Do you think that your job or journalism as a whole will ever be replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Yes, but to a point. I think there’s a lot of stuff that – and I see this in some of the stuff I do – is becoming a bit robotic. I write a lot about start-ups specifically, where, for better or worse, it is pretty straightforward. It’s like: X company is raising X amount of money. They’ve closed the funding round at say $3 million, investors were these people and they’re going to use the money towards XYZ. That doesn’t need my brain to do that, an AI [robot] could do that. An AI could take those inputs and say, ‘here’s the news,’.  Obviously I think that deeper level, opinion, thoughtful stuff is the stuff that you can only do as a human and AI is nowhere near, I don’t think maybe ever will be near that level of, say, creative thinking and analysis that people will pay for.

But AI is already doing things like sports news reports. And those things don’t need creativity, it’s like, ‘a local football team kicked X goals,’. You don’t need to have studied journalism or have been in the biz for 10 years to be able to write that. An AI could do that and is doing that. So it’s that low-level stuff is where I’m sure AI will take over. But that’s why I think it’s important to be an expert in something or just be that good of a writer that an AI can’t touch you.

Have you been witness to massive shifts, due to technology, in the journalism field?

Yeah, definitely. A couple of things; one, it was kind of weird for me going from online-only to then learning how to write for a newspaper. It’s kind of like going backwards. You learn, ‘ok there’s a box here in the paper for your story, you can’t go over because it just won’t fit, and the headline has to be this long and you can’t update it afterwards,’. If you stuff something up, it’s there in print, it’s been printed a million times. It’s kind of strange I guess, because with online you learn that there are all these good things about it. You can go back and change something afterwards or you can quote someone as much as you want because you’ve got unlimited space basically. That’s interesting, I guess, taking that step.

But I’ve also noticed that disruption, at The Australian. I’ve been there for probably three years, and it’s been hard, like the floor where we sit is half-empty and it used to be full, and there are redundancy rounds pretty regularly. We just announced, a couple of days ago, we were profitable for the first time in over a decade. So we’ve maybe hit a break-even point like: ok the losses have stopped, and maybe we can operate with how many journalists we’ve got.

Do you think people who really appreciate tech and who are really in to it, wouldn’t read The Australian, because it’s not as tech-jargon heavy?

Yep, I think I’d agree with that, but the flip-side of that is that I get a mainstream audience that most tech writers wouldn’t have, and that gives me opportunities that I normally wouldn’t have. The doors that opened when I joined The Aus, it was like night and day, in terms of going from having to really try to get opportunities, like, ‘can I interview your CEO about this?’ It’d often be, ‘no, but you can interview his junior exec about this,’ whereas at The Australian, the power dynamic is so different it’s like, ‘please interview our CEO about this,’ because they want to be in the newspaper. Newspapers are still quite an influential media.

It does come at a cost though, because more tech-y people are seeking you out and reading you, but the benefit is far greater I think; which is the more mainstream audience which I’ve really come to appreciate.