Digital Innovation Digital Publishing Top Stories
5 mins read

“Robots are part of the strategy to grow the business”: How publishers are using AI to build engagement and increase revenue

Highlights from the latest FIPP Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report looking into how publishers across the globe are using artificial intelligence to expand coverage and build more engaging products.

Publishers around the world are looking at artificial intelligence as a powerful resource for achieving critical goals. 85% say that it will be very or somewhat important this year in delivering better personalization and content recommendations for consumers, according to Reuters Institute’s Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022.  

81% see AI as important for automating and speeding up newsroom workflows, such as the tagging of content, assisted subbing, and interview transcription. 70% believe it will play a key part in helping find or investigate stories using data. 69% expect it to be helpful in identifying and targeting prospective customers most likely to pay for a subscription.

However, news publishers are still at a very early stage of AI adoption compared to other digital media outlets like video and audio platforms, according to the latest Innovation in Media Report 2022 from FIPP. The report seeks to look at the bigger picture by rounding up some of the most inspiring innovations with AI being executed in newsrooms across the world.

Balance the potential for ad revenue against that of subscriber revenue

Norwegian publisher Amedia reaches 2.4M readers daily across all platforms. It uses a machine learning algorithm to identify characteristics of user behavior that indicate happy and satisfied customers. The algorithm analyzes up to 70 reader behavior statistics and boils it down to a single number called Engagement Index which indicates the likelihood of a reader to stay loyal. What adds to its value is that the index captures factors that are under the publisher’s control. 

Canadian publisher The Globe and Mail’s suite of AI tools called Sophi calculates the best time to show a paywall to individual readers when the likelihood of conversion is highest. It can also identify those who are least likely to convert and not show them paywalls which could potentially alienate them. Such readers can bring ad revenues, so Sophi may ask them to register with their email instead. “Sophi uses analytics to make decisions that balance the potential for ad revenue against the potential for subscriber revenue,” the authors explain.

Sophi also selects the stories that can be placed outside the paywall. In fact, it decides where to place 99% of all digital content across The Globe and Mail’s properties. The newspaper generates additional revenue by making its services commercially available to other publishers. The South African news website News24 amassed 45,000 subscriptions in just over a year with the help of Sophi. 

Norwegian newspaper Agderposten reduced its editorial team’s workload considerably by opting for automated page layout services powered by Sophi. “Agderposten’s editors could hit the print button and be done, or alter the paper as news broke, then rerun the automated process within a minute,” says Sonali Verma, Senior Product Manager, The Globe and Mail.

“Created habits among the lowest engaged groups”

The Times & The Sunday Times use a “digital butler” called James to create personalized emails for subscribers. James predicts the content they are likely to be interested in based on their past behavior and then sends it in their preferred format at the time they are most likely to read. During its trial, 70% of 117,000 randomly chosen subscribers interacted with James by either opening or clicking on the newsletter. It was very effective with the least engaged subscribers, says Mike Migliore, Head of Customer Value, News UK. 

James created habits among the lowest engaged groups which are the hardest groups for us to retain.

Mike Migliore, Head of Customer Value, News UK

Belgium publisher Mediahuis uses data to target potential and existing customers with the best registration offer, the best sales offer, and the best retention journey in an automated, efficient, and personalized manner. The publisher has developed a churn propensity prediction model which helps it target existing customers who are likely to churn but could be persuaded to stay with the right offers. 

It’s also developing a propensity-to-buy model that will be able to predict if a reader is likely to buy a subscription, as well as the type of subscription they may buy. The model is correctly predicting eight out of 10 cases whether somebody will buy a subscription in the next month, according to Jessica Bulthé, Data Science Business Partner, Mediahuis.

Massive increase in coverage is “engagement gold”

Many publishers are using AI to ramp up content production and coverage. Dutch regional media group NDC set out to cover every single local match in the football-loving country – that’s 60,000 matches – far beyond the newsroom’s capacity. The publisher uses robots to write match reports, while photos and comments from coaches are collected through a crowd-sourcing platform. “For a regional publisher like us, being able to cover all matches of all divisions is engagement gold,” says Ard Boer, Sports Project Manager at NDC. 

Norwegian regional site Bergens Tidende also relies on automated content. It uses ‘Boligrobot’ created by United Robots to gather real estate data, like current prices, addresses, areas, changes in prices over time, the price of a square meter, and so on. This data is combined with aerial and panorama photos from a supplier, as well as Google Street View images, to produce content for its readers. The automated articles generate about 3,000–4,000 pageviews a day. The publisher expects 1000 new subscriptions per year through them which is 5% of all the article conversions in BT.

For a small newsroom, automation is necessary. 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. 

Helena Tell, Editor-in-Chief, Bärgslagsbladet (Bonnier News)

Crosstown, a non-profit community project uses machines to cover hyperlocal news in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. AI-powered tools are used to scrape public datasets and store content in the cloud, explains Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg School for Journalism, who publishes the title. The data is then used by reporters to produce stories around a variety of topics like crime, traffic, air pollution, or coronavirus. Every story can be turned into neighborhood news since each piece of data has a location tag. 

“Tools that everyone needs to be more efficient”

Using machines to do the most labor-intensive task allows Crosstown to “address one of the biggest pain points of local news: sustainability,” the authors note. “It is simply not possible to have a reporter in every neighborhood to monitor everything from traffic to pollution to public spending, then produce personalized news relevant to the residents.”

“The big challenge for many large media companies is serving audiences with very different needs using a monolithic website or app,” notes Nic Newman, Author, Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022. “AI offers the possibility of personalizing the experience without diluting the integrity of the newsroom agenda by offering different versions of a story – long articles, short articles, summaries, image or video-led treatments – with much greater efficiency.”

AI tools help publishers improve their offerings and secure their business, adds Cecilia Campbell, CMO, United Robots. “If you can offer better journalism, obviously you have a better chance at a future. For the majority of publishers that we work with, the robots are part of the strategy to grow the business and improve the business.”

You have to spend some time thinking about the tools that everyone needs to be more efficient. It really is incumbent on journalism leaders and funders to do this in a way that is practical. 

Professor Jeremy Gilbert, Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

The full report is available at FIPP:
Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report