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April 29, 2021updated 02 Mar 2023 9:17am

How a robot called Sophi helped Canada’s Globe and Mail hit 170,000 digital subscribers – CEO interview

By William Turvill

Phillip Crawley, the Englishman who runs Canadian national news title the Globe and Mail, is a newsroom executive of the old school.

He has tales of working alongside Rupert Murdoch, sparring with Conrad Black, and editing the South China Morning Post during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

But Crawley, who also edited the Newcastle Journal between 1979 and 1987, has some strikingly new ideas about the future of journalism.

“If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have said that newsrooms would be largely resistant to being told what to do by the machine,” he tells Press Gazette in a phone interview.

The ‘machine’ he refers to is Sophi, an artificial intelligence (AI) programme developed by the G&M to drive up digital subscriptions.

As well as managing the Globe’s paywall, Sophi is also effectively a website homepage editor and social media consultant who provides “decision-support tools for editors”.

At face value, Sophi may sound like a dystopian nightmare to some traditional journalists. But it’s difficult to argue with the technology’s results.

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The Globe credits Sophi with helping it reach 170,000 digital subscribers and bringing in millions of dollars of revenue.

Crawley also says that, with homepage editing and social media management outsourced to an award-winning robot, his journalists are able to devote more of their time to finding and reporting on stories.

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Crawley’s career: From Newcastle to Toronto with some help from Murdoch

Phillip Crawley

Photo credit: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Crawley (left) began his career at Thomson Regional Newspapers in the UK, rising to become editor of Newcastle’s Journal newspaper in 1979.

Following a brief stint as northern editor of the Daily Telegraph, he moved to Hong King in 1988 after being named editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, which was then owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Crawley later moved within News Corporation to London, where he was managing director of  Times Supplements between 1993 and 1997.

What was Murdoch like as a boss in the 1980s and 1990s?

“He’s a very astute observer of what makes a newspaper good, successful,” says Crawley. “You didn’t see a lot of him [in Hong Kong], but when he did drop in he always had something insightful to offer on the way the paper was looking.

“In London, obviously, you saw more of him because he was there a lot more. And therefore you were a lot more conscious of the impact he had on the decisions. You got to meet him a lot more and sit in meetings with him and do budget presentations. This was the 90s, so digital was just beginning to become a question for what should newspapers be doing about digitising content, classifieds?

“I remember being involved in discussions on that with him. Clearly, you learn a lot from watching somebody like him making his big calls.”

Crawley was made managing director of the New Zealand Herald in 1997, but moved on the following year when “the Thomson management, who I’d obviously worked with a lot in my earlier career when I was in regional newspapers, came and asked me to move to Canada to take over the Globe and Mail”.

(The Thomson family, through its Woodbridge holding company, has built up its stake in the Globe and Mail to 100% in the years since Crawley took charge. Woodbridge also has a majority stake in Thomson Reuters.)

Explaining his appointment in 1998, Crawley adds: “There was a new national newspaper being launched by Conrad Black, the National Post, which was launched in October 98.

“So I arrived just a few weeks before that to lead the resistance from the incumbent. We were the only national newspaper at the time and Black obviously had ambitions to create this new national newspaper, and obviously, that was going to threaten the Globe.

“That’s why I came here, and I’ve been here ever since.”

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Taking inspiration from the New York Times and Blackberry

In recent years, much of Crawley’s attention has been focused on building up the Globe’s digital subscriptions business.

As revealed by Press Gazette’s 100k Club ranking earlier this month, the title now has more than 170,000 digital-only subscribers, in addition to around 100,000 print subscriptions.

The Globe, says Crawley, is aiming to reach 350,000 digital and print subscriptions by 2023. With print in “slow decline”, the focus over the next couple of years will be on selling more digital subscriptions.

This is where Sophi comes in.

The G&M placed its website behind a paywall in 2012, drawing inspiration from the New York Times, which has become the leader in the news subscriptions field (see our recent interview with former NYT chief executive Mark Thompson ).

“We watched the way the New York Times did its metered paywall, and that was the model that we adopted – a metered paywall – to begin with,” says Crawley.

“So we were looking at what the New York Times, on a much larger scale of population, was doing. And we started down that road.

“But we really only started… to feel happy about the rate of the progress about six, seven years ago when we brought in some people who really had a superior understanding of what artificial intelligence could do for the subscription business.

“So we hired people who had previous experience at Blackberry – when Blackberry was a force, in the days when it was riding high. They came to us and started to build the capability internally at the Globe to apply AI.”

The former Blackberry employees were Greg Doufas, who is now the Globe’s chief technology and digital officer, and Mike O’Neill, the Globe’s managing director for data science and digital, and VP of

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How Sophi edits the Globe and Mail homepage

The Globe’s Sophi software, built up over a number of years and backed by a team of 50 data scientists, offers the title a “dynamic paywall”, says Crawley.

In other words, it decides – based on article content and reader information – whether articles should be free to access or put behind the paywall.

“That’s really what’s been largely responsible for driving the growth,” Crawley says.

Sophi, which the G&M is now selling as a service to other publishers and companies in different sectors, can also effectively act as a website editor, making decisions about where content should be placed.

And, says the Globe through a spokesperson, Sophi can provide “decision-support tools for editors that need to understand what to do more of and what to do less of, and how best to promote their most valuable content”.

Crawley says: “The biggest impact I think has been the connection between that technology and the newsroom, [which has] adopted the view that Sophi will give them the intelligence to pick the right content.

“If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have said that newsrooms would be largely resistant to being told what to do by the machine.

“But what happened over the years was a good relationship was formed between our chief technology officer and our editor-in-chief – both relatively new in their roles. I think both saw the opportunity that was there, and it really has revolutionised the way the newsroom operates.

“Effectively they trust the data that Sophi delivers to them every day. It gives them the results. They can see what happens when they promote a particular piece of content and it drives subscriptions or it drives traffic.

“So that has become the biggest cultural change in the company that I’ve seen in the 20-odd years that I’ve been here – the adoption by editorial of that sort of trust in the data.”

It has also, he adds, “changed the way people work. Sophi can automate a big chunk of the website. So if you’re looking at the homepage, most of the content is placed there automatically based on what Sophi is indicating will be the most likely to be read.”

All told, the G&M says Sophi autonomously places 99% of content on its website.

Every 10 minutes, the software looks at all G&M online content to analyse whether certain articles merit greater promotion on the website or on social media.

Sophi has enabled the Globe to automate much of its social media posting, especially on Facebook (platforms like Twitter and Instagram still require a bit more of a human touch). It can also help with newsletters and the layout of the newspaper.

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The newsroom of the future is one where journalists can focus on finding and telling great stories – something that machines can’t do’

Sophi sounds good on paper. But how well does the programme work? After speaking to Crawley, Press Gazette sought to find out more about Sophi from the Globe and Mail.

A company spokesperson says: “Sophi has helped the Globe move from a 70% advertising revenue and 30% reader revenue split, to a 30% advertising and 70% subscription revenue split, and we’re not losing market share on the advertising side.”

The Globe says Sophi has brought in a 17% increase in click-through rate from the homepage and a 10% increase in subscriber acquisition.

It says that Sophi’s work at the Globe has led to millions of dollars in incremental revenues, a more than 100% increase in website registrations and the 51% increase in subscription conversion.

The spokesperson says subscription revenue gained through Sophi is 10 times greater than advertising turnover that has been given up as a result of having a paywalled website.

Do readers mind that the website is largely edited by a robot? The Globe spokesperson says: “Not a single reader has complained or asked if a computer is curating the website.”

Does the Sophi system encourage clickbait?

The Globe says not, because story promotion decisions are based not just on page views, but on whether content is likely to contribute to subscriber retention, subscriber acquisition, registration potential and advertising revenues.

For example, it is understood that the business-focused morning column of Michael Babad – who  died last year – was particularly valuable to Globe subscribers.

How do the Globe’s journalists feel about Sophi?

In an emailed statement, Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley says: “The newsroom of the future is one where journalists can focus on finding and telling great stories – something that machines can’t do. This is why we asked our data scientists to automate the webpages, slowly and carefully testing the results before gradually implement­ing it across practically the entire site. And I’m very happy with the results.”

The Globe says it currently has around 220 full-time staff in its editorial department. That number has remained steady since 2017 when 10% left their jobs as part of a voluntary severance programme.

‘A lot of newspapers [will] disappear in the next five to 10 years unless there is government intervention

The Globe and Mail, like many other publishers building digital subscription businesses, has seen a spike in paying readers over the past year as many have sought to keep abreast of reliable Covid-19 news.

“We made a decision fairly early on in the pandemic last year, because of the importance of the Covid story, that we would take the paywall down on all Covid-related stories as a public service,” says Crawley. “So traffic doubled from 6m to 12m in a couple of weeks last year”

But coronavirus has done nothing to help the Globe with the “slow decline” of its newspaper. The print product, he adds, has reduced in size because it is attracting “a lot less advertising”.

Crawley says he fears for the future of Canada’s printed press.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of newspapers disappear in the next five to 10 years unless there is government intervention to provide some kind of support,” he says.

“Because they don’t have a business model that I think will hold up to the rate of decline of print advertising. Print advertising before the pandemic, as you know, was dropping every year. And in some cases it was 14-15% per annum, in some cases it was 20% per annum.

“Pre-pandemic, we were doing better than most, but it was still double-digit loss each year. And now we are waiting to see what happens when the pandemic finally abates: Are we going to see a permanent step down in the volume of print advertising, or will you see a return?”

Trudeau’s Liberal Party government has already introduced policies – controversial among political opponents – to offer financial assistance to the Canadian news industry. In 2018, it unveiled a CAD$600m aid package for the media sector.

But Crawley believes longer-term solutions are needed.

He, like many other news executives around the world, is keeping a close eye on new legislation in Australia that forces Google and Facebook to pay publishers for the use of their content. The Canadian government may look to introduce similar rules.

What does Crawley make of the Australian regulations?

“It’s the kind of model that I think appeals most to our industry and seems to have found favour with the heritage department [which oversees media in Canada] in terms of a model.

“But you saw what happened in Australia – as soon as the government started to introduce legislation, deals were done with Google and Facebook individually. Murdoch was the first one to jump in and do a separate deal with Google and Facebook. And I think that is quite likely to be a pattern that happens in other countries.

“We know that Facebook are paying for content in the UK, they’re paying for content in the USA. So there are ways in which that could be applied also in Canada.”

Ultimately, government aid and Big Tech regulation aside, Crawley is wary of being too dependent on digital advertising, he says.

“If you don’t have a strong subscription revenue model – particularly for digital – and you’re depending on advertising to be your main source of revenue, I think that’s not a good idea.”

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