About a year and a half ago, the Germany-based consulting group Schickler approached WAN-IFRA about possibly collaborating on a research report to examine how Artificial Intelligence is being adopted and implemented by news publishers. Schickler itself had recently invested in data and AI expertise to meet the growing demands of their clients.
We were keen to pursue the cooperation, but the timing came on the heels of a similarly themed report (and cooperation with the University of Finland) about News Automation. That report covered many of the basics of automation for news operations, but more specifically on news creation. Therefore, we thought it made more sense to pursue this report with Schickler with a slightly different and more focused angle around the role AI is playing with reader revenue and editing, hence the title: “AI’s rising role with editing and reader revenue“.
(WAN-IFRA members can download the report for free with their login and password. If you are a member and don’t have that information – or you are a non-member and would like to purchase the report – email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The basis of the report is built around a global survey of data specialists at news media operations, commercial executives and editors. The survey features the most common use cases today for news publishers – again, 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.
In the second part of the report, we present five case studies of news publishers who have implemented AI use cases such as dynamic paywall control, churn prediction modelling, automatic surfacing of archive content or automatic creation of soccer game reports. These cases, some curated and updated from our events, highlight not only the effectiveness of AI adoption but also its potential as most are looking at “What’s next” possibilities and developing projects and tools. Naturally, these also show some of the challenges with experiments or usage, and some of the uncertainties surrounding automation.
Some key takeaways
But what is absolutely certain is AI and automation are clearly on the minds of publishers today. Our survey, as well as other surveys from our World Press Trends project and events, bear that out. In general, more than 75 percent of publishers say AI will play a crucial role in the success of their business within the next three years. Here are a few other takeaways:
Publishers banking on AI for its business: Despite a slow rate of adoption, nearly 77 percent of publishing executives responding to our global survey said AI will be important for the success of their business in 2024. Of that, 35 percent said it would be very important.
It can be expensive, but…: AI innovation and investment is not just for the marquee publishers around the world as small publishers (across the globe) have already adopted AI in many facets of their activities. Whether it is through in-house development or partnering with startups, universities / labs or other publishers, there are ways to get on board.
Now the reality on the ground…: Actual adoption and implementation appears to tell a different story, at least when we conducted our survey nearly a year ago. That indicates that 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 percent have implemented multiple cases and only 11 percent fully implementing one case.
Internal struggles: Any adoption of a new technology brings its own set of obstacles and challenges, and AI is certainly no exception. While there are a number of cases globally of small publishers implementing AI, publishers told us (in our survey) their biggest challenge is a lack of funding in the budget and time compared with other projects. Not far behind this is the difficulty in developing actual production-ready AI use cases.
Not ready to hand over the keys to AI, but editors warming up …
Clearly the near taboo that was once associated with AI as it pertains to journalism is clearly fading, or even a moot point, as newsrooms and their editors lean into the clear benefits of automation. It sounds like a cliche, but it is true: when done right, the advantages of automating mundane processes allows journalists to focus more on their core principles of creating quality content. But increasingly, as the survey showed, the intelligence side of AI is also winning over editors and journalists as it pertains to reader revenue strategies.
A lot of tools do a great job of informing 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 stories 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 South Africa, in a session dedicated to AI during WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in early December 2021. “Analytics are 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.”
News24 launched a freemium paywall in August of 2020, putting about 20 percent of its content behind the subscription wall. The site had already worked with AI and machine learning to help moderate its comments section, but then took a new step by working with The Globe and Mail’s technology to get directly involved in ranking news stories, prioritising times to publish, and conversion predictions.
Proceed with caution
Bassons did go on to say that, of course, he and his newsroom are accutely aware of the precautions that need to be taken with any technology like AI. “We have had great success so far, but our editors and staff still have control over the crucial editorial decisions we make and will continue to do so. … it would be foolhardy of us to ignore the risks that we have seen around the world in the past five to six years, in terms of manipulation, misinformation, echo chambers existing in publications, so I think we will have to be quite cautious as we move into a more automated future, in terms content ranking and placement … to really manage and mitigate the risks around sentiment analysis, around political analysis. … All that said, I don’t view AI tools or technology as a particular threat to that.”
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