Attitudes are changing towards the deployment of AI in news publishing, opening up a host of potential opportunities.
About a year-and-a-half ago, the Germany-based consulting group Schickler approached the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) about collaborating on a research report to examine how artificial intelligence (AI) is being adopted and implemented by news publishers.
The report, AI’s Rising Role with Editing and Reader Revenue, is built around a global survey of commercial executives, editors and data specialists at news media operations. The survey features the most common use cases today for news publishers – restricted to reader revenue and editing – as we tried to gauge the current state of adoption, and the importance they place on AI within the next three years.
What is absolutely certain is AI and automation are clearly on the minds of publishers today. In general, more than 75% of publishers say AI will play a crucial role in the success of their business within the next three years.
Publishing has indeed come a long way with AI, even though the actual adoption rate is quite low globally compared to other industries. That is not a huge surprise. I recall when working on the News Automation report how Carl-Gustav Linden, a leading expert on the topic who spearheaded much of the research on that report, expressed his frustration with the way the industry was dragging its feet in adopting AI. The same message came from some of the AI providers trying to break into the news industry.
However, once that handful of publishers shows the way and the business case can be made, we’re off and running. At least that seems where we are today. What is refreshing is this is not relegated just to publishers with deep pockets, nor to the usual pioneers in the business.Small publishers all over the world are innovating, partnering and developing AI solutions for their companies.
More than just automation
The virtual taboo once associated with AI as it pertains to journalism is clearly fading, as newsrooms and their editors lean into the clear benefits of automating mundane processes, which allows journalists to focus more on their core principles of creating quality content. Moreover, as the surveys showed, the intelligence side of AI is also winning over editors and journalists as it pertains to reader revenue strategies.
A lot of analytics tools inform the newsroom about what stories are trending and when, but many of the AI tools already on the market and in practice today help to predict more accurately which stories will be read and, more importantly, which will convert and retain based on historical data around subscriptions and engagement.
“I think that [the reluctance to use AI] has completely changed, at least in our newsroom,” said Adrian Basson, editor in chief of News24, in a session dedicated to AI during WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in early December 2021. “Analytics is much smarter now than purely page views. Analytics and specifically AI tools help us to convert casual readers into subscribers and actually build a reader revenue business that tacitly has helped to increase the size of our newsroom so we can create better journalism. That is a beautiful cycle that The New York Times has championed for all of us to see: the more you invest in your journalism, through more subscriptions, the bigger your newsroom is, the better your journalism becomes.”
Collaboration and confidence
The key lies in collaboration, both internally and externally. Naturally, larger publishers might have in-house resources on their data teams to deploy AI tools, or they can hire those with such skill, or just work with an AI vendor more easily than a small publisher. But they should strongly consider tapping into and partnership with the vast ecosystem of start-ups, labs, universities and even other like-minded news publishers.
Regardless of the size, starting on one project that your operation can feasibly cope with but has a solid impact can lay the groundwork for successfully proving the worth of the tools, breeding confidence in both your newsroom and management.
That confidence is crucial, as we have learned from even larger news groups that sometimes face internal battles with getting not only editors and journalists on board, but also their own dispersed tech teams. For example, perhaps they already developed a churn model built on not-so-contemporary techniques and are reluctant to listen to a new set of specialists offering better modelling predictions. Then there is the challenge of budgeting squabbles: the data/tech team has to justify the investment in AI, but when it works and revenue increases, that is more respected (and rewarded) in the commercial teams.
With any “new”, game-changing technology, you need buy-in from editors alongside real champions in the newsroom to embrace the technology and show others the positive possible outcomes of such a tool and its concomitant working culture. Depending on how advanced a newsroom is in its digital transformation, there are likely to be analytics editors embedded in the newsroom already.
Key takeaways from the report
Publishers banking on AI for business: Despite a slow rate of adoption, nearly 77% of publishing executives responding to our global survey said AI will be important for the success of their business by 2024. Of that, 35% said it would be very important.
Reader revenue use cases abound: AI can help with surfacing content, placement on home pages, predicting churn, subscription propensity, automated content creation like sports results that has a long-tail play in retention, triggers for subscriptions and dynamic paywalls, among others.
The power of positive results: When newsrooms start to see these actions create positive results, it can have a knock-on effect of them buying into automation as a true benefit as opposed to a threat. This in turn generates more investment, whether that is in tools or resources.
The reality on the ground: While there is enthusiasm to invest in AI in the near future, nearly 50% of respondents said they have not adopted AI usage thus far, 19% have implemented multiple cases and only 11% have fully implemented one case.
Core use cases identified: Most publishers have indicated that many of the key use cases associated with reader revenue and other editorial practices are planned to be in practice by 2024, so these are clearly in their road map.
Data resource shortcoming: For most publishers to reach that goal by 2024, there also needs to be a bigger commitment to their overall data strategies and infrastructure. That means investment in expertise, finding champions within the organisation and generally getting their data blueprints in order.
This is an edited version of the World Association of News Publishers’ report, AI’s Rising Role with Editing and Reader Revenue, with contributions by Ole Martin, Christoph Mayer, Simone Flückiger and Dean Roper.
WAN-IFRA is the global organisation of the world’s press. Its mission is to protect the right of journalists and publishers around the world to operate independent media. It provides members with expertise and services to innovate and prosper in a digital world and perform their crucial role in society.
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