Writers and editors and general scenes of the Globe and Mail newsroom at 351 King St. East, are photographed on Sept 19 2017. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

How to Balance the Responsibilities to Communities and the Needs and Wants of Paying Audiences

When any news organisation starts down the path of paywalled content, one big question that they face is the question of what to paywall.

Part of the challenge there is the tension between the public’s right to know useful information and the media company’s desire to restrict content that can drive revenue.

Another part of the challenge is the tension between advertising revenue and subscriber revenue: If you paywall content, then you give up advertising revenue that would otherwise be available as readers flock to it.

These are questions that we sought to answer as well. Soon after we introduced our paywall, our newsroom meetings regularly featured arguments over what should go behind the wall and what should stay in front of it. Everyone was involved in a great guessing game about what would drive subscriptions.

Our data science team took this problem away and came back with a question for the newsroom: Would it be all right if they experimented with paywalling some articles that the data suggested would have extremely low traffic anyway?

The newsroom agreed, and our data scientists went to work. They used a natural language processing-based artificial intelligence system that we call Sophi to estimate the expected advertising revenue and the expected subscription revenue from every article that we published.

The results were stunning. We ended up with millions of dollars in incremental revenue. All this without the newsroom changing a thing.

In other words, we had been leaving money on the table for years. Sophi revealed to us that our readers saw the value in many articles that we published, which our editors had not seen.

Our editors went over the results of the test and suggested that it was best if Sophi decides which articles to paywall.

Our data science team ensured that our editors had the prerogative to manually override any of Sophi’s decisions that they disagreed with. This has seldom been exercised, except in cases where the newsroom believes that it is in the public interest to be aware of certain news stories (e.g., on coronavirus or wildfires or sexual assault). Our newsroom is the gatekeeper of the community’s right to arm itself with vital information.

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