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How publishers are using robot journalism to drive engagement, subscriptions and ad revenue

Robots are making the impossible possible in many newsrooms. 

Dutch regional publisher NDC said earlier this year that it plans to cover every single local match for the whole season. That’s 60,000 football games – a commitment far beyond the capacity of the newsroom and something no one else in the country has attempted. 

The publisher will achieve this feat with the help of robot journalism and crowdsourcing.  

“Engagement gold”

The match reports will be generated with the help of artificial intelligence software that combines Natural Language Generation (NLG) with regularly published sources of structured data. Photos and comments from coaches will be collected through a crowdsourcing platform. 

In a soccer-playing country—1M of the 17M inhabitants of the Netherlands belong to a club—this initiative can significantly boost engagement.

“For a regional publisher like us, being able to cover all matches of all divisions is engagement gold.”

Ard Boer, Sports Project Manager, NDC

“Thanks to automated journalism, we’re able to write about every single local football match, coverage that’s not provided by anyone else,” said Boer. “That, combined with the crowdsourcing element, will drive inclusivity and engagement in the local sports communities, and by extension create value in our news brand.”

The returns are not just limited to engagement. While the local matches will be free to read, the publisher will also combine automated content with premium sports journalism to drive people down the funnel. 

Schibsted’s Norwegian regional site Bergens Tidende is another publisher using automated content to drive revenue. It has created a home sales vertical populated entirely with robot-generated real estate content. 12,000 automated articles have been published in a year since launch in the summer of 2020 generating 3,000–4,000 pageviews a day. 

The publisher uses real estate robots from United Robots. The texts delivered are generated through an NLG process applied to structured data sets from Statens Kartverk (public data in Norway) as well as some secondary data sources and Google Streetview + Google Earth. 

Source: News automation and how to leverage it

“An important part for our overall subscription business”

“There are 15–50 sales of houses or apartments in Bergen every day, and for buyers, sellers, neighbors, or people moving into the neighborhood these texts are highly relevant,” explains Jan Stian Vold, Project Lead, Bergens Tidende. “So we assumed they would generate subscription sales – and we’ve been proven right. The high quality of this real estate content, combined with the fact that it’s automatically generated, provides a net value for us – and our readers.” 

The automated texts alone drive 5% of BT’s total article conversions of new paying readers. The publisher has sold about 1,000 subscriptions at €24 per month in a year with this content. The number of conversions has stabilized at 60–70 a month, which is satisfying for the team. “These are not extremely high numbers, but they play an important part for our overall subscription business, and we’re pleased with the results,” says Vold.

Going forward, the publisher expects to publish 10,000 automated articles a year that can drive 600–800 subscription sales and a million page views. 

Without automation, the home sales section would not have been viable though, as the newsroom resources required would outstrip the value of the content. “If we’d had to employ 5 journalists to do this job, the gain would have been canceled out by the cost in newsroom hours,” says Vold.

“Key investment in the future”

The high page views and targeted audiences can generate substantial ad revenue for publishers. Swedish local media group, Mittmedia generated 7.3M page views in 2019 with the help of robot-generated articles. They accounted for 3% of the company’s total number of page views. The number of sellable ad servings from those page views amounted to 11M, according to the report, News automation and how to leverage it. Topic verticals with a lot of automated content, and hyperlocal ad placements, allow the publisher to charge 20% higher CPMs compared to its average inventory.

Swedish national tabloid site Nyheter24 publishes automated real estate top lists and celebrity real estate articles. The articles generate tens of thousands of page views per week. The publisher is looking at growing ad revenues with cost-effective robot-generated pageviews. 

“For Nyheter24, this represents a key investment in the future. I believe that robot journalism will form an integral part of our editorial work.”

Henrik Eriksson, Publisher, Nyheter24

“Potential to drive a number of business effects”

Automation also allows publishers to let their journalists focus more on creating high-quality content that machines cannot. An article on the sale of a big/ expensive house or a particularly interesting new company registration can generate 2000–4000 logged-in page views. That’s equivalent to 2–3 days’ work for one reporter, according to Mittmedia.

“By automating routine reporting, we free up editorial time and resources to create more qualified journalism which adds value for our readers and support our reader revenue business,” says Peter Sigfridsson, Head of Production Development, Gota Media. “And while we have razor-sharp focus on local content, we still have white spots on the reporting map. With automated texts we ensure readers in these areas too, receive regular updates about local events.”

Gota Media publishes automated stories about sports, real estate, company registrations, and traffic in order to provide regular updates in all its local communities. Its automated real estate content has a conversion rate of 2% which is the best across the group’s ten news sites.

”For a small newsroom, automation is necessary,” adds Helena Tell, Editor-in-Chief, Bärgslagsbladet (Bonnier News) in Sweden. “We know where to deploy our resources in order to make our readers happy. And if we can use technology and automation to perform tasks as well as we reporters would, there’s no doubt that’s what we should do.” 

Deployed strategically, automated content has the potential to drive a number of business effects in the advertising business model as well as in reader revenues. For the newsroom, automation is about enabling more and better journalism, enhancing services to readers and acting as an effective newsroom tool.

News automation and how to leverage it