Writers and editors and general scenes of the Globe and Mail newsroom at 351 King St. East, are photographed on Sept 20 2017. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Culture Change In A Digital Era

How do you take a 175-year-old newsroom and successfully launch it into the digital era? This is the challenge that The Globe and Mail faced in 2012, when we set up our paywall so that we could continue to fund ambitious, nation-building journalism.

We had many problems:

  1. Our newsroom was fixated on page views (as that had been the only measure of digital success so far, because of the advertising revenue associated with it). But with a new paywall, subscription revenue was now increasingly important. Yet, any article behind the paywall would not bring in many page views. How could we show that it was a valuable article?

  2. Our journalists didn’t really trust the data. They questioned how we could say that a page view from a paying subscriber was equal to one from a fly-by visitor from social media.

  3. Only a few people could take a deep dive into data because we were using complex tools that were not user-friendly for journalists

  4. The tools that everyone did have access to did not give us actionable insights. E.g., we could see how many people were sitting on our website, but what do we do with that?

To tackle these thorny problems, The Globe and Mail hired data scientists who brought with them a wealth of expertise from the technology and banking industries. They came up with an elegant solution -- a method of scoring every piece of content according to how much value it brought to the business.

The left-hand side of the multicoloured bar reflects the many different ways in which an article can bring in the advertising revenue associated with page views.

The right-hand side shows the role that an article played in driving new subscriptions as well as in retaining existing subscribers.

Another problem that Sophi solved is that of promotion bias. This is a challenge that is familiar to anyone who has ever run a website:

Our data scientists took this problem away and managed to crack that nut as well after a few years of research.

The result was a tool that transformed our culture:

  1. Everyone in the newsroom got a Sophi log-in and training on what the tool was showing them.

  2. Every iteration of Sophi was built in close collaboration with the newsroom, so it is extremely user-friendly and it answers questions that editors and reporters typically need answers to. It also helped build trust in the tool and what it was showing them.

  3. Sophi helped them connect the metrics they were seeing with the actions they were taking. Eg, if an article was promoted heavily on a certain section page, they could see whether they were wasting pixels by occupying valuable real estate or whether it was paying off. Or if an article was successful for search or social referrals, they could see which attributes to replicate in order for the next such article to be successful.

  4. It helped them see that there are many ways in which an article can be valuable to the Globe – and this way, every reporter and editor understands whether their content typically helps drive subscriptions or helps retain existing subscribers or helps bring new readers to the Globe through various sources, such as search or social. This gives everyone a sense of purpose and reinforces transparency around the value that they bring to our publication.

  5. It helped assigning editors understand what to do more of and what to do less of, since promotion bias was eliminated (so, it is no longer the case where an article that received a great deal of promotion and is, therefore, vastly popular, is considered the sort of article that we decide to do more of).

  6. Before Sophi, the newsroom had already started to do mental math to try and figure out how to equate, say, an article with 100,000 page views to one which brought in 30 subscriptions. Unfortunately, everyone did the math their own way. Having a Sophi Score for each article solved this problem by standardising the math.

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