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“A vital handrail for us all to guide our priorities”: How AI powers editorial decision-making at The Globe and Mail

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How do you take a 175-year-old newsroom and successfully launch it into the digital era?

“Paywall is not really a technology project,” says Greg Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence, INMA. “It’s about realigning the whole company to readers. It’s how you overcome your decision inertia, technology debt, concerns of staff. It’s a transformation project and a reinvention opportunity.” 

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper has been able to do all of the above successfully. Its Editor-in-chief, David Walmsley, spoke at length on how they did it at the recent INMA Subscriptions Summit

“Data that complements editorial intuition”

The 175 year old newspaper put up a paywall in 2012. One of the first dilemmas it was confronted with was understanding the difference in value between an article that was behind a paywall and brought in dozens of subscribers versus one that had thousands of page-views.

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.

The newsroom was fixated on page views as till then that had been the only measure of digital success, because of the advertising revenue associated with it. However, after paywall implementation subscription revenue became increasingly important. 

The publisher then built Sophi, an artificial intelligence system with predictive capabilities, to automate content curation and promotion. “An efficient editorial team doesn’t need to do more work,” says Walmsley. “It needs to make decisions that are based on unambiguous data that complements editorial intuition.”

It’s about actually getting people to do work in a more clever fashion by doing less work. And making them feel that the work is more meaningful through relevance, because it connects directly to the discerning reader. The best way of doing that is to give them data to help them navigate competing priorities.

David Walmsley, Editor-in-chief, The Globe and Mail

“Distribution is key”

Sophi gives a commercial score to every piece of journalism published by The Globe and Mail. Its AI engine has been trained by the editors to understand what is relevant to each page and which articles are most appropriate. 

It understands how much each story contributes to subscriber retention, subscriber acquisition, registration potential and advertising dollars. It looks beyond just page-views, thus avoiding undesirable click-bait. The metrics are accessible to all editorial staff.

Source: INMA Subscriptions Summit

The information provided by Sophi combined with a journalistic gut helps the publisher identify valuable patterns in its audience behavior. They could see “where the audience was, who the audience was, and when they were looking for us,” said Walmsley. 

“How they consumed us began to be better understood. What they rewarded through their purchase power, and what got them to stick around when they had already bought a subscription. When we should play hard on desktop, or mobile, or social and what the accompanying format should be.”

Source: INMA Subscriptions Summit

The newsroom learned that while business and investing stories convert readers to become subscribers, the time of day stories get released can make all the difference. “If you take away just one thing today from me, it is that distribution is key,” says Walmsley.

We no longer publish and distribute into the ether to a self satisfied echo chamber, a lonely place where we don’t know or even think of the audience. We know what they want, and what they ignore. 

David Walmsley, Editor-in-chief, The Globe and Mail

“Where the gold lies”

One of the biggest lessons for the publisher came in November 2018—a regular month with business and investing at the top in terms of commercial scores—when suddenly a long arts feature took over the top spot at the end of month.

On investigating the matter, the newsroom found that the story was released at 4PM Eastern Time, North America, on a Friday without any forethought. It was published digitally because the edit had been done for the piece that was getting a big display in the next day’s newspaper.

“4PM Eastern is 1PM lunchtime on the Pacific coast,” explains Walmsley. “The story was based in British Columbia, in Vancouver and the lunchtime reader on desktop in that market was hunting for something to read. They came in droves. Like a surfer, the story caught the wave and became the most successful commercial story of the month because of the distribution.”

The art of distribution combined with quality journalism is where the gold lies.

David Walmsley, Editor-in-chief, The Globe and Mail

Next, Walmsley experimented with weekend distribution. Based on data from Sophi he decided to hold certain stories till a later Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. The strategy helped the publisher grow its audience by 54% in the next three months. 

Consistently keeping tabs on the data for patterns has also helped Walmsley move resources and create new topics where they weren’t doing as well as they could have. Climate change was one such topic which has a stronger team now based on data from Sophi indicating audience interest. It also helps the newsroom identify and cut down on what’s not working. 

“It keeps editorial hungry”

However, Sophi cannot predict what will work. It cannot assign scores to topics for which it does not have data. These range from investigative stories to upcoming trends. This is where the journalistic judgement comes into play. “It keeps editorial hungry,” says Walmsley. “It forces them to create new markets, fresh intellectual capital and put it into the marketplace. Is there a new wave? Can we catch it?”

They did it with China. The newsroom covered stories on China and its influence on Canada because they believed it was important. They did not have a commercial score to guide them on the topic. Two years on, China as a topic consistently ranks among the top five in terms of commercial score.

“An apples to apples comparison”

Sophi also solves the problem of promotion bias. For example, by looking at the data, the editors can figure out whether promoting an article on a certain section page is paying-off. Further, if an article is successful on search or social referrals, they can see which attributes they could replicate in order for the next such article to be successful. 

“When Sophi delivers your score, she strips promotional bias out of the distribution,” says Walmsley. “She takes away editorial bias and provides an apples to apples comparison of two pieces of journalism.”

“And this is important because often reporters will say, well, you didn’t care about my story. You didn’t give it the promotion it needed,” he adds.

“Generated more than $10M in lift for the business”

More than 99% of the content on The Globe’s digital pages is now placed by Sophi. It looks at the stories published across the website every 10 minutes to select the ones that merit greater promotion and updates the website accordingly. It also determines what to promote on The Globe’s social media pages and newsletters.

Source: INMA Subscriptions Summit

“Editors can always overrule and change emphasis and decide what should be the top stories,” comments Walmsley. “We permanently do AB testing. We can also actively change the design of the site based on propensity models to subscribe indicated by Sophi.” 

He adds that they have “generated more than $10M in lift for the business by layering Sophi’s user propensity paywall on top of the typical content paywall.” 

“There is no replacing the journalistic gut,” says Walmsley summing up. Sophi “cannot say what will work. But it can offer a pattern of past behavior and give you something to bet against. 

“It does not do your job. It does not replace your job. But it does provide a vital handrail for us all to guide our priorities and to experiment permanently.”