Data, AI, audience expansion techniques drive high-performance newsrooms in the digital era

By John Horstmann

City, University of London

London, United Kingdom


How news publishers with varying business models are managing in the rapidly evolving digital age has been a key topic of discussion at the INMA World Congress of News Media in London this week.

On Thursday, a panel of editors from media companies around the world discussed it at length, specifically touching on the use of data, AI, and audience expansion.                                               

Being informed by data — but not dictated by it

Data has become crucial for publishers to optimise content distribution and maximise revenue on digital operations.

“I love data,” said Isabel Russ, editor-in-chief of Vorarlberger Nachrichten in Austria. “There is so much potential in data. You can measure anything… it’s so powerful.”

Russ said her company measures the performance of each story, how long it has been featured and its performance over time, who is reading the story at what time, and what types of stories are preferred.

Tony Gallagher, executive editor of The Times, said the company combines various data points — including pageviews and engagement, the age of the audience, and the number of women reached — to create an overall score for each story. 

“We use that as a basis for our stories. We also measure which stories aren’t doing well.”

However, Agence France-Presse (AFP) uses data in a slightly different way due to its business-to-business rather than business-to-consumer model, explained Sophie Huet, global editor-in-chief: “We are in a data-informed process much more than a data-driven one. We are not watching a dashboard on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Tony Gallagher and Sophie Huet shared how they are using data in their news media organisations.
Tony Gallagher and Sophie Huet shared how they are using data in their news media organisations.

She implied data has been less important for AFP due to its B2B model but explained that the use of data within her agency is on the rise: “We do have some data on where our stories and videos are going and how they perform on [news publishers’] Web sites. Gathering all of this data and putting it in a specific dashboard is something we are working on.”

Recognising data’s limitations

The panel also mentioned the limits of data and the possibility of being overwhelmed by the ever-increasing number of data points available to publishers. 

“It is important that we are not dictated by data. If we were, we would be leading every day with a story about Prince Harry [as that performs particularly well],” Gallagher said. “Human judgment has always got to be allied to the data to make the final decision.” 

Russ noted there may be discrepancies in data literacy among various people in a newsroom, and that must be accommodated: “To get an editor to really understand the data, you have to simplify it as much as possible. We give the editor a simplified dashboard, mainly about conversion and engagement. Data analysts take care of the more complex data and explain those to the editor.” 

AI as a tool for humans, not a substitute  

The panel offered optimistic views about the use of AI within their media organisations and emphasised that it is unlikely to replace the work of humans.   

“We see AI as a big chance for us,” Russ said. “Everyone in our office has an OpenAI enterprise account and we encourage them to use it.” 

Gallagher said he was “cautiously optimistic” about AI’s potential and said The Times is trialling it for writing headlines and captions, as well as translating content into foreign languages. He highlighted that it would not replace human work en masse, “I don’t think it will be a substitute for humans… readers will not be fooled by it.” 

Russ warned that certain stories written by a newsroom may eventually be removed from human hands, as many could be created by by AI. But that would not remove humans from the newsroom; it would simply free them up to work on other stories.

“We don’t see that as a threat, but rather as the potential to use our resources for other meaningful things. We have to create news that no one else creates, that is not out there. We want people outside speaking to other people and getting stories that you couldn’t get sitting in the office.”

Alex Wood Morton and Isabel Russ both see the potential benefits for incorporating AI into operations.
Alex Wood Morton and Isabel Russ both see the potential benefits for incorporating AI into operations.

Asked whether AI may eventually take over the curating of stories on Web sites or apps, Alex Wood Morton, executive editor of Fortune in Europe, warned of overreliance on data: 

“If we all follow algorithms, we will all end up doing the same thing. I believe there is a place for human curation.”

Expanding audiences to reach young people 

Audience expansion is a top priority for any news media company. The methods a news media company uses to grow its audience may differ depending on the specific brand and target group. Reaching more young people, however, is a common theme among media organisations. 

“We want the younger audience,” said Gallagher, “We think they will come to us in due course.”

The Times employs various methods to reach younger people, including a recent expansion of its social media presence and radio. It has stepped up its Instagram and TikTok content in pursuit of a younger audience and invested in radio and podcast content.

At Fortune, Millennials are a primary target group, Wood Morton said: “Millennials are the biggest generational group in the workforce right now. They are the generation heading into the c-suite in the coming years. We are trying to lean into that.”

Overseeing Europe for a U.S.-based company, Wood Morton also discussed how he is aiming to broaden Fortune’s relatively small European audience: “[In Europe], we need to act like a start-up. We need to grow our presence and grow our visibility.”

Gallagher and Wood Morton emphasised the need for individual journalists to grow their personal brands to attract new people:

“Our journalists are very entrepreneurial. Many have their own large social media presences,” Gallagher said.

Wood Morton added, “I have made it very clear to all my staff that they are ambassadors of the brand.”

About John Horstmann

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.