Schibsted’s Bergens Tidende, Stavanger Aftenblad share automated content wins

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


There is great value in automated content.

During the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in Stockholm earlier this month, leaders from two Schibsted newspapers shared the automated content products they are producing that audiences are loving — and paying for.

“Ninety percent of what we send goes to publishers goes straight to Web sites and apps without intervention from newsrooms,” explained Cecilia Campbell, chief marketing officer at Sweden-based United Robots. “What we product is not really journalism. It's community information like ... high school sports, real estate sales, things that are universally interesting to readers.”

Bergens Tidende doubles revenue from subscriptions with automated content

Jan Stian Vold, project leader at Bergens Tidende in Norway, shared how the regional news media company transformed into a sustainable digital media house going from 5,000 to 50,000 digital subscriptions in six years.

That 50,000 number wasn’t just a goal. It was a mandate, at which the team did a simultaneous eyeroll. 

“That’s never going to happen. That’s simply impossible,” he remembers thinking. “It didn’t take us five years. Itt ook us six years. We are closing in on 60,000 digital subscriptions. We’ve gone from doomsday to digitally sustainable by the end of 2021. We mean that without income from print, we are still able to employ a large enough newsroom to fulfill our commitment to society and readers. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

To make that happen, the company went from a newspaper to a primary news destination. And part of that transition involved automated content.

Bergens Tidende automated its front page in 2017. In addition, much of its content is automated — in all, 40,000 such articles in the past three years. These stories have been well read: 3,000 subscriptions have been sold in 2.5 years on those stories, making this “one of the most conversion-friendly features we’ve got,” Vold said.

The real estate robot answers the question: What did my neighbour's house sell for?
The real estate robot answers the question: What did my neighbour's house sell for?

The real estate robot, which provides a list of every real estate sale in the region, was a “revelation for news automation,” at the company, Vold said. His team started testing it out in 2020 and found readers really wanted the hyperlocal content this robot provides. 

Another win: The local business robot, which produces ontent on the earnings, revenue, CEO salary, and many other details of local companies. 

“I kind of thought it would be a bit nerdy and niche, but it has become a surprisingly huge hit actually,” said Vold, who spends some time manually editing the stories. 

Content from both the real estate and local business robot are behind a paywall.

“This is a brilliant way to get closer to your readers,” Vold said. “Is it a story that your neighbour has sold their house? To you it is. Is it a story that your local grocery store is making a lot of money? Well, it is to you. Is it a story that the soccer team your caughter plays on won their match? Well, to you it is. This sum of what’s interesting to only a few becomes interesting to everybody enough times. That’s the essence of this.”

“We used to be a newspaper which happened to have an online news site. Now we’re an online news site which happens to publish a newspaper. The change in mindset that comes out of that is very important.”

Automated content was a key part of the company's overall strategy change.
Automated content was a key part of the company's overall strategy change.

Automated content changed the entire content strategy of the media company. The most important change the company made was getting rid of generic content.

“We went from being a regional, local newspaper trying to be all over the place, covering all the ground, to prioritising unique content,” Vold said. “What can we do better than our competitors? Back in the day, we used to publish 100, 150 articles a day. Now we publish 20 or 30 articles a day, and they are more relevant for the readers. It’s about user needs.”

The teams have also gone from “gut feeling to data and insight decision-making,” Vold said. In 2015, they created in-house dashboards for the newsroom, tracking real-time conversions from articles. This was a pivotal, culture changing move.

As was this: “In 2015, we banned print terminology in staff meetings. If we show what we do internally, we show it on mobile. It’s harsh, and it was harsh to good colleagues fo mine. But it does to show you when you are going to do changes, you can’t always be compromising. You have to make some tough calls.”

The results are impressive:

  • In 2018, subscriptions accounted for one-third of the company’s income.

  • Today, that number is two-thirds.

“To put readers first, we try to use the data and insights they provide us to make better decisions,” Vold said. “We’re becoming a more experimental media house, allowed to come up with new ideas, test them out, and if they fail, let’s try another one. That climate is very important to keep growing because that’s what it’s all about now. We need to keep growing.”

Stavanger Aftenblad’s MAAAL! project almost doubles subscription renewals

With its MAAAL! (which translates to a very excited goal!) automated content project, Stavanger Aftenblad was able to cover local football. 

“This has proven the perfect way to increase loyalty for subscribers and to reachpr a younger audience,” said Elin Stueland, deputy news editor at the news media company. 

The project's goal was to cover all local football matches, ages 13 and over, like a championship league.
The project's goal was to cover all local football matches, ages 13 and over, like a championship league.

The local professional football team is the Vikings, and Stavanger Aftenblad already covered them extensively: training camps, injuries, changes to coaching staff.

They set a goal to cover all football matches ages 13 and up in a similar way — like they were part of the champions league. 

“We wanted to interview them, take them seriously, set up meetings with the different local clubs to make them feel they were part of our big project, Stueland said. “We met a few shaking heads, thinking automated football content would be full of errors, static, and not worth reading.”

The team has set up text rules to guide the automated content: creating a definition for what an early lead is (when you score in the first 10 minutes) and naming the player who put the ball in the net after five minutes.

There are 80 to 90 football matches a day locally and 10,000 football players are mentioned by Stavanger Aftenblad, the largest newspaper in the region. 

Before the project, the average subscription renewal at the media company was 28.5%. Now, it’s 50%. 

“Text is not flesh and blood,” Stueland said. “We need people to add emotions and analysis, in addition to the great supplements from automated texts. We have been the first movers in publishing robot articles in Norway. We have added a real human to run this full-time, and we added another reporter last year.”

About Dawn McMullan

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