Sophi & Cleo: How the West Australian Used AI to Increase Subscriptions (Fast)

November 28, 2022 – 4 min. read

2022 Bethany Chismark
CUE was publishing online stories for this news event unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” - Bethany Chismark Editorial Systems Manager, Seven West Media, The West Australian

A pandemic, a newsroom reconstruction, upgrades, staff changes, and a break in one of the biggest news stories in Australia’s history, may seem like an inopportune time to launch a new artificial intelligence program, but The West Australian took it all in stride. Integrating Sophi, a content paywall engine, with Stibo DX’s CUE proved to be the revenue bump they needed, resulting in 24% of new subscriptions. And an additional bump in subs when they switched to a fully automated system.

Located in Perth, Western Australia, The West Australian is 190 years old and the only metro daily newspaper in the state. It has grown to have two websites, The Sunday Times, 19 regional newspapers, 12 suburban newspapers, multiple podcasts, a documentary series team, and tv news. It is the fastest growing cross-platform news brand in Australia, reaching 4.7 million readers every month across all brands.

Bethany Chismark, editorial systems manager for The West Australian, took to the virtual stage at CUE Days 2022 to highlight the newsroom transformation using artificial intelligence.

She was introduced to AI in newsrooms at a Stibo DX CUE users conference in 2017. She learned about Sophi, a content paywall engine that uses AI to weigh the opportunity for subscriber revenue against expected advertising revenue, and subsequently present a paywall.

The algorithm is smart enough to know what content readers are willing to pay for. Sophi “reads” every article for topics, themes, places and keywords. Then, it paywalls the wire stories that fit those criteria.

The Set up

By the summer of 2021, The West was focused on integrating the software, bringing together multiple departments across the building.

Suddenly this wasn’t just an editorial thing or a tech thing. Now we were having conversations with advertising, analytics and insights, customer engagement and finance. Every department had a pocket of people now invested in Sophi,” Chismark said.

Chismark explained that The West set up business rules for Sophi, so that there were guidelines in place for content that the AI wouldn’t touch. “Any stories about the lotto, weather, traffic, bushfires, missing persons, reader competitions, school ball photos or sponsored content always had to stay unlocked, so they just bypassed Sophi’s assessment.” Producers oversaw monitoring what Sophi recommended and adjusting accordingly.

The Highly Anticipated Roll-out Week

The CUE-rollout in November 2021 was for around 50 staff members. Chismark says the first two days using Sophi and getting the paper out went smoothly. “It felt too good to be true. And then of course, it WAS too good to be true – in the early hours of Wednesday morning, around 4am, our Editor-in-Chief received a phone call from the Police Commissioner. The voice on the end of the line simply said, ‘Get to work. They found her. They found Cleo.’”

4-year old Cleo, went missing from her family’s tent while camping 18 days prior. The story of Cleo’s abduction captivated all of Australia. “So after less than 48 hours of rolling out CUE and Teams, this day was going to define where we stood. After training staff and organizing for months as well as the years of planning and work from my team, it felt like it could all unravel in an instant,” Chismark said.

She goes on to say that CUE made sharing the breaking story across platforms incredibly simple and the Sophi algorithm proved to be on their side. After such a smooth launch with a huge story, they knew they could easily introduce Sophi to the wider newsroom.

Rage against the Machine?

Don’t worry, machines aren’t taking over. But David Johns, online editor for The West Australian thinks important to illustrate what machine learning was capable of versus humans in the past year for the publication.

Of the near 3900 stories Sophi suggested we lock, we locked around 2500 of them. We then got 40 subscriptions from those stories in just 10 days. Of the 1800 stories she suggested we unlock, we chose to keep almost 800 of them locked. Of those stories, only one of them sold a sub. It's early days but the figures are showing us that despite her suggesting some strange yarns to lock or unlock at times, on the whole we do better when we follow her (Sophi’s) recommendations,” said Johns.

The West Australian’s Takeaways

#1 Get the right team around you – the change makers, the ones who see what needs to happen and can actually make it happen.
#2 Have a quick easy win as soon as possible to show success and value.
#3 Be persistent – Keep checking in everyday until it becomes a normal part of the day to day