Introduced partly to relieve key staff, AI-based prediction at Seven West’s Perth-based flagship has led to a dramatic increase in subscription acquisition.
Editorial systems manager of the 190-year-old West Australian, Bethany Chismark says that with digital transformation pushing people to their limits, she wanted take a little bit of pressure off staff: “With so many new tools, so many platforms to think about, so many hours of the day to cover, I just wanted subscription conversion to be one less thing a producer or editor had to think about.”
But a 2021 implementation of Toronto Globe and Mail’s Sophi content paywall automation has achieved much more than that, she says in an INMA Ideas blog.
The paper – which reaches a monthly audience of 4.3 million and claims the highest state reach of any metro masthead in Australia – had already had “some success” in paywalling content, but decisions were often editors’ best guesses about which articles would drive subscriptions and which would generate page views.
“This meant they missed opportunities and left money on the table,” she says.
The new AI-based system ran natural language processing on every article as it was published, predicting whether it would generate more ad revenue or subscription revenue, and accordingly recommended to editors which articles should be locked or unlocked.
By August 2022, editors “handed the reins” for paywall decision-making to Sophi, “since it was evident that it was making powerful decisions that improved conversion without diluting their news brand.”
Editor-in-chief Anthony De Ceglie says newsrooms have an idea that they know better than algorithms, but the truth is that the “beautiful tool” is another lever that can be pulled to get the best results for their audience.
Results included a dramatic increase in the number of subscriber acquisitions compared to traditional decision-making methods.
Online editor David Johns said of almost 3,900 stories the system suggested were locked, “we locked around 2500 and we got 40 subs from those stories, in just ten days.”
Of 1800 stories it was suggested they unlocked, they kept almost 800 of them locked, but only one sold a sub. Another discovery was an uptick in subscriptions on wire content, stories that editors would never consider paywalling, Johns saying that what Sophi did was to take the guesswork out of some of the stories that were locked or unlocked.
This paved the way for fully algorithmic decision-making: “It’s not to say that staff didn’t get it right some of the time over Sophi,” Chismark said, “but it showed us that we could leave it up to AI more than we had originally thought and go fully automated.
“Once we flicked the switch to fully automated, we saw a continuation of the strong results we had in the early stages of operation.”
De Ceglie says one of the newsroom’s greatest fears was that automation would lead to jobs being lost, “but the flip side of that is that it frees up capacity.
“And newsrooms have never been busier. If Sophi is making these decisions for us, then our producers can make other decisions, and those are journalistic decisions: Should we go and chase this? Have we called this person? Is there an FOI that we could be doing right now? These sorts of innovations free up newsrooms so we can go back to the basics of journalism.”