West Australian grows subscriptions with AI paywalling

By Sonali Verma

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


The West Australian, a 190-year-old newspaper, is the flagship daily masthead of Seven West Media group. Across print and digital, The West reaches an audience of 4.3 million every month, the highest state reach of any metro masthead. It is a one-stop shop for all news in Western Australia.

The West had some success in paywalling content, but the decisions were often their editors’ best guesses about which articles would drive subscriptions and which would generate page views. This meant they missed opportunities and left money on the table.

“I could see that with all we were doing with digital transformation, we were pushing people to their limits — so many new tools, so many platforms to think about, so many hours of the day to cover,” said Bethany Chismark, editorial systems manager. “I just wanted subscription conversion to be one less thing a producer or editor had to think about, to take a little bit of pressure off staff.”

Finding the solution

The West implemented Sophi’s content paywall in November 2021. Sophi ran natural language processing on every article as it was published, predicted whether it would generate more ad revenue or subscription revenue, and accordingly recommended to editors which articles should be locked or unlocked.

By August 2022, editors handed the reins over to Sophi for paywall decision-making, since it was evident that it was making powerful decisions that improved conversion without diluting their news brand.

“Newsrooms have this myth, this idea that, ‘We know better than algorithms’,” said Editor-in-Chief Anthony De Ceglie. “The truth is, Sophi is a beautiful tool and another lever that we can pull to get the best results for our audience.”

The results

With Sophi, The West saw a dramatic increase in the number of subscriber acquisitions when compared with the traditional method of paywall decision-making.

Becoming fully automated allowed The West to increase subscriber acquisitions.
Becoming fully automated allowed The West to increase subscriber acquisitions.

David Johns, online editor at The West, cited one example: “Of the near 3,900 stories Sophi suggested we lock, we locked around 2,500 of them, and we got 40 subs from those stories — in just 10 days. Of the 1,800 stories Sophi suggested we unlock, we chose to keep almost 800 of them locked. Of those stories, only one of them sold a sub.”

The team also noticed an uptick in subscriptions on wire content, stories that editors would never consider paywalling.

“What Sophi did was to take the guesswork out of some of the stories that we locked or unlocked,” Johns said.

This paved the way for fully algorithmic decision-making, Chismark said: “It’s not to say that staff didn’t get it right some of the time over Sophi. But it showed us that we could leave it up to AI more than we had originally thought and go fully automated. Once we flicked the switch to fully automated, we saw a continuation of the strong results we had in the early stages of operation.”

One of the newsroom’s greatest fears was that automation would lead to jobs being lost, De Ceglie said. “But the flip side of that is that it frees up capacity. And newsrooms have never been busier. If Sophi is making these decisions for us, then our producers can make other decisions, and those are journalistic decisions: Should we go and chase this? Have we called this person? Is there an FOI that we could be doing right now? These sorts of innovations free up newsrooms so we can go back to the basics of journalism.”

About Sonali Verma

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