‘AI is a mean, not a goal’ – Bonnier’s Pia Rehnquist on integrating AI into your local news strategy – WAN-IFRA

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Swedish journalist Pia Rehnquist has held various roles, including that of editor-in-chief at Sydsvenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s biggest morning newspapers, where she first started her career as a journalist, in 2000.

She joined Bonnier News Local in 2020, as Editorial Director. In December, she was promoted as Business Area Manager, and oversees about 50 Swedish regional and local newspapers.

Rehnquist also makes up part of the management team of Bonnier News – one of the largest media groups in the Nordic region, comprising more than 200 titles and brands.

Bonnier News boasts over 2.2 million subscribers, of which 1.7 million are based in Sweden, and half are digital.

In December, Bonnier News Local announced a milestone reach of 500,000 subscribers across 50 titles – a 17% growth year on year.

SEE: How Sweden’s Bonnier News amassed 2.2 million subscribers

Bonnier News Local, and the entire Bonnier News company, has been making progressive strides into AI and tech tools and resources, and undergoing a transformative restructuring process.

In March, it launched the first AI-edited newspapers. And this month, the news media company launched their first common podcast – a weekly true crime series featuring local reporters from all over Sweden telling the stories that have changed their cities.

Rehnquist, now five months into her new role, spoke to us about keeping the newsroom sustainable amid economic downturns, AI and digital disruptors. 

You’ve been a journalist all your life; now, in a general management role, you’re having to make tough calls – what is most challenging to you now?

We have so far succeeded in implementing our strategy with local editorial presence in an otherwise rather centralised structure, and a very strong focus on digital subscriptions. 

More than 50% of our local and regional subscribers are digital (the numbers for all of Bonnier News are even better) and our digital growth is still very strong.

The biggest challenge is to find the best way and the right pace for the transformation ahead.

In March, Bonnier News Local launched the first AI-edited newspapers; where are you at, now, in terms of AI exploration in the newsroom, and what new developments can audiences expect?

We are exploring a lot, and at every level, in the company. I prefer to see AI as an integrated part, and enabler of, our strategy, and our already defined goals. 

‘Different kinds of personalisation, customisation and effectivisation are areas where I think audiences will “meet” AI – but maybe not understand it, since AI is a mean, not a goal.’

How do you think editors can best adapt to changes in evolving newsrooms? What other roles can they assume, and what skills, tools and resources do you believe are essential for an Editor today?

Most journalists, and therefore editors, are curious, bold, and good at communication. That’s a good start, since these are important leadership skills. 

Try to create a culture where change is part of everyday life, and where it’s “accepted” that you as a leader might not have all the answers is important. Making sure that people understand why changes are needed is crucial. 

How do you envision journalism, and newsrooms of the future, in the next 5-10 years – what advice do you have for editors hoping to make an impact, and local media outlets seeking sustainable solutions?

Journalism and newsrooms are better than ever. And journalism has never been as important as it is today. I think that balancing self-confidence  – we are needed! – with the ability to change and try new things, is key to success. 

Local media outlets need to define their mission and strategy and be prepared to develop the way that they do journalism. Our data and analysis show that we need to work more with the “how” than the “what” in the newsrooms.’ 

Bonnier News Local is a participant in WAN-IFRA’s Innovate Local programme; please explain the significance, if any, of this; what can local newsrooms learn from sharing experiences?

I think that we can learn a lot from each other. Most of the challenges are the same, even though the context, or our societies, may vary. 

We cooperate extensively with our colleagues at Norwegian Amedia, in exchange of knowledge, and it is valuable.

Since our businesses are local, there is no competition between different media outlets either.  

What keeps you driven and inspired – despite all the challenges of a constantly changing media landscape?

I honestly think my job is a privilege, and this is why I go to the office every day: I try to find the best ways to take our newspapers into the future. 

When it feels especially challenging, I find strength in that insight. Another very valuable source of inspiration is all the fantastic people that I work with!

‘I think that doing nothing, or hesitating, when faced with the need to change and embrace the future, is the biggest mistake one can make.’ 

Pia Rehnquist will represent Bonnier News Local at the upcoming World News Media Congress in Copenhagen in May: see full programme for details, and diarise Wednesday, 29 May for a session on Celebrating Local Media: Highlights from WAN-IFRA’s Innovate Local Programme. 

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