I work for a serious, 177-year-old national newspaper that has embraced radical automation: 99 per cent of the content that you see on The Globe and Mail’s digital pages is placed there by a clever artificial intelligence algorithm called Sophi. Every article on our Facebook page is also placed there by Sophi.
How did this happen? I believe it is because we could clearly see the value of harnessing machine learning– and reallocating our talented editors to the tasks of gathering news and shaping it into absolutely first-rate journalism.
Here is a look at four actions that we have automated because we believe that our talented staff are better suited for other work:
What to paywall. When we put up a paywall in 2012, we decided to place a small amount of our content behind a hard paywall and meter the rest of it. Our editors (including me) would pick the articles to be hard paywalled. It was a game of heavy speculation and dodgy mental math: how many pageviews will this article drive, how many subscriptions could it bring in if we paywalled it instead, and how much would either of those be worth to us?
What we realized over time is that Sophi can accurately predict both the amount of subscription revenue and the amount of advertising revenue expected by every article that we produce – and it is astonishingly good at it. So, our editors went back to assigning and editing content, and Sophi took over hard paywalling. (Of course, our editors still retain the right to manually override any decisions that they disagree with but they rarely use this veto power.)
As it turns out, we ended up switching off our meter as well. Sophi now runs a fully dynamic, personalized, real-time paywall that knows when to ask for money, when to ask for an email address and when to simply let the reader read uninterrupted.
Which content to place where on our homepage or on our article pages. This was a big move for us, so let me explain how we did it.
Sophi looks at all the different ways in which every article that we produce is valuable, taking into account how much advertising revenue and subscription revenue it generates, as well as understanding the role it played in retaining existing subscribers.
It can serve many different versions of the same page, optimized for different outcomes. So, for example, it can populate one version of the page with articles that are optimal for driving subscriptions and offer this to visitors who have yet to subscribe. It can offer another version of the page to existing subscribers, this one optimized for retaining existing subscribers. Sophi understands that different visitors may value pieces of content differently and can optimize the page depending on who is visiting. This means interpreting and autonomously acting upon thousands of signals simultaneously, a task that any human would struggle to do efficiently.
Which content to place on social media platforms, and when. Using complex natural-language processing, Sophi also understands which articles will gain traction on social media (and which won’t). It autonomously posts them to Facebook at the best time of day. Naturally, our editors set the constraints within which it can operate, such as specifying what kinds of articles it cannot post, and they did oversee its operation initially to ensure that their rules were being followed.
How to make personalized offers to readers. We use Sophi to make personalized offers to readers in real time, whether it is an offer to sign up for a free newsletter or a paid event, or to buy an expensive ticket for a European river cruise where they get to rub shoulders with Globe journalists as they enjoy wine and cheese. Sophi understands who will be willing to simply sign up for a newsletter – and who will be willing to part with thousands of dollars.
Intelligent automation really can move the needle on revenue – and it frees up our brilliant staff to focus on work that humans can do better, like producing award-winning journalism.