New FIPP Member spotlight: Writers’ Bloc

A premium, one-stop-shop for top-tier journalism, the Dublin-based Writers’ Bloc makes it easy for content creators and publishers to find each other and collaborate.

Featuring a stable of 84 experienced journalists from 35 countries, it offers a central workspace that facilitates the majority of daily activities of journalism. Writers’ Bloc manages the administrative and commercial tasks for journalists and publishers so both groups can focus delivering superior, high-quality content to the right audience.

We caught up with Commercial Lead John Byrne, who co-founded the company alongside Ewan MacKenna (Journalism Lead), Erika Borges (Marketing Lead) and J.M. Byrne (Investor), to talk about the importance of the written word, how technology is changing journalism and the important role journalists are playing in rebuilding trust between the media and readers. 

What is it that makes Writers’ Bloc so unique?

Writers’ Bloc introduces a new model for independent journalism and publishing that is fit for the 21st century. Some of the concepts are not new, but the delivery of these concepts is totally different. Our focus is ease-of-access to content and writers, and ease-of-use for our software. Our founding team has a range of experience from both within and without of the industry. We believe this gives us an edge, as we benefit from both the in- and out-group perspective. Writers’ Bloc handles the administrative elements behind-the-scenes, leaving journalists and publishers to focus on the story. We exist to make everyone else’s lives a lot easier. We were founded under a journalist-first approach, to improve job-security for independent journalists. We maintain that ideal as a priority today.

John Byrne Co-Founder, Writers’ Bloc

Your stable of writers are, of course, your lifeblood. How do you go about recruiting top talent?

To ensure the highest standards of quality are delivered to our publisher clients we perform rigorous due diligence on all of our journalists who sign up. Green flags we look for include prior writing experience and examples, accreditation with a national journalist organisation, accreditation with other reputable industry bodies (e.g. AIPS for our Sports journalists), social media activity, and other indicators of commitment from each journalist.

This process also provides our journalists additional credibility in the field, as publishers know we stand behind their work, once they have been approved by our team. In order to scale the business, we cannot continue to manually verify all of our journalists. So, we are looking at how best to rollout automated digital verification. 

What are some of changes you’ve noticed in the publishing landscape? What are the new demands of publishers you work with?

The most noticeable changes relate to content. Premium content is the order of the day. A significant shift has occurred from a prior demand to deliver a regular quantity of content to, now, a demand for producing high-quality content – perhaps at a reduced frequency.

The importance of communities and community-building has come to the fore also – people want to hear from those who know what they are talking about, and can share deep insight or analysis, based on experience. People want to connect with each other to share knowledge and foster relationships. This has led to an increase in requests for more niche content. Editors are looking for journalists who can cover a range of tasks/activities – with photography and videography the most common. Publishers also want evidence of prior experience in high-quality writing – i.e. easily viewing a journalists’ prior portfolio of work, and where they have been commissioned.

You really value the power of storytelling and the essential role of journalism. How important is it that these core values are preserved in a fast-changing world of media?

Extremely important – We focus on the core, traditional pillars of journalism. There has been a widely experienced and widely reported decline of trust in media, institutions and information. With the rise of independent journalism, there is an opportunity to bring trust back to the media sphere, as audiences believe they can trust individual journalists over institutions with a perceived agenda.

How big a role will journalism play in ensuring the transparency of information and accountability of institutions are maintained?

A significant role. This trend is even more evident when looking at the market opportunities caused by the decline of trust in institutions and the demand for verification services – all this highlights the demand for these traditional values to be upheld. This has a knock-on effect for democracy and the democratic process. By offering rigour and transparency across the board, Writers’ Bloc can stand behind our journalists, as they actively demonstrate adherence to these traditional pillars of excellence and accountability. It also allows us to offer an invitation of trust to readers, because we are not a publisher with a perceived agenda; our focus is true journalism. The consequence of complete freedom of information is an abundance of misinformation, as anyone can publish what they like. The opportunity arises in being able to distinguish between those who espouse and embody the principles of journalism, versus those who do not. This is where Writers’ Bloc thrives; to provide publishers access to a group of top-tier journalists who have been vetted and verified.

How do you feel about the rise of AI and how will tech like ChatGPT change storytelling in the future? Should writers be worried?

It depends what writers are trying to achieve, but largely I would say, no. If anything, it will give top-tier journalists a boost, as their capacity to deliver high-quality content will be in increasing demand. Tools are as useful as the individual wielding them – likewise with ChatGPT, it depends on how it is being used. However, that is not to say that journalism will not change – it will change, a lot. I believe the one of the biggest changes will be around verifying the source of content – i.e. written by a human or by a machine. We see with the Twitter verification saga in the news recently and with the rise of digital signatures and other verification technology, that this is already a topic of discussion.

How will the evolution of large language models (LLMs) change our behaviour?

The demand for genuine, verified, human-generated content will increase. Much like the printing press following its invention, or the arrival of the internet, large language models will change how people approach information. It will certainly be easier to disseminate mis- or disinformation but will also make it easier for people to learn and educate themselves. Historically, the easier it becomes for people to create and share information, also brings a rise in false information disseminating, as anyone can print anything. This is a risk in itself. But people adapt, tech matures and we find new ways of sourcing truthful information. It will also make it easier for journalists to be more productive, enhancing the work itself by removing much of the tedium, such as administrative tasks. Large language models cannot perform most of the functions of a serious journalist, they are simply very powerful predictive text models. That being said, it is the other end of the scale that I would be more worried. It will be easier than ever to produce generic, low-level content in large volume. This could prove problematic in terms of spam, web-scraping, plagiarism, etc. That is more where my worries lie regarding LLMs. Hence the increased demand for premium, verified content, mentioned earlier.

How important will proper storytelling be in the future?

Crucial – storytelling will never die, it’s who we are as a species. And good storytellers are hard to find, thus creating a demand for their services and output – thereby preserving the value of storytelling. We humans create tools to shape our collective environment, and we tell stories to shape our collective narrative. This activity will never change, it will only continue to develop and evolve, along with ourselves as a species. So, within that context, premium content from the best journalists will always have significant value. The LLMs cannot perform the functions of a proper journalist, and so, at least for the foreseeable future, premium journalism is valuable.

What concerns do you have about the future of writing?

The main worry I would have is that the mainstream, yet false, narrative of “journalism is dead” is driving prospective journalists and writers away from the field, because of all the negative press around the industry and the emergence of LLMs. Journalism is an artform, so if anything, given the greater demand for premium and unique content, journalism should be viewed as a highly-respected vocation. We, as a society, need journalists more than ever, as they are the traditional bastions of democracy, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. If we want to ensure these values are upheld in future, we will hold journalists in higher regard than we do today. Writers’ Bloc is doing just that, and we are looking forward to the next evolution of the sector.


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