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When an algorithm takes over your newspaper
Debates regarding Canada’s proposed Online News Act (Bill C-18) focus on the potential compensation schemes that would compel web platforms to compensate Canadian news organisations for posting content online.
As we reconsider the interactions between news organisations and large platforms, it is worth examining how news organisations may be emulating some of the tactics and practices associated with Big Tech. Like using algorithms to isolate and manipulate our news consumption by tracking the online activities of current and prospective subscribers to achieve the dual goals of maximising subscriber and advertiser revenue(s). These incentives are another way that our consumption of online news is shaped and skewed in a digital context.
The Globe and Mail has created an innovative and proprietary tool that provides “automation, paywalls, and predictive analytics for modern publishers,” called Sophi.io. Consider it an intelligent assistant for publishers and editors alike so that they can create a custom experience for each reader, ensuring the best opportunity to exploit their attention.
However, Sophi is also a bit more than an intelligent assistant, taking on some editorial and publishing tasks. For example, at the heart of Sophi’s functionality is an algorithmically generated score assigned to each piece of content that influences how that article is promoted, received, and ultimately monetized. While this score can be audited, its function is to provide a quick and easy synthesis of the value and potential of each pitched or published piece.
The score is not fixed or technologically deterministic, as Sophi is a highly configurable platform. While it was developed by and for the Globe and Mail, it was ultimately designed as a product that could be sold to other customers. As a result, the scoring system has a wide range of configurable options. These scores can and should reflect the values and priorities of whoever is ‘employing’ Sophi.
In the Globe’s case, the scoring system is designed around the goals of subscriber acquisition, retention, engagement and advertising revenue. It seems like the latter is weighted slightly less than the former, as Sophi was intended to enable a shift in the Globe’s business model from a focus on advertising revenue to one on subscription revenue.
In terms of how it works: each piece of content entered into the system is assigned a score. This score allows the system to make decisions about the content with regard to the primary goals, i.e. subscriber acquisition. However, it also weighs potential advertising revenue against that potential subscriber action. If predicted advertising revenue is high, the content will be placed in front of the paywall in order to maximise clicks/views, however if the potential for subscriber sign up is higher, it will be placed behind the paywall.
Similarly, a client using Sophi to build their own platform could change the weighting to value their cultural content differently. Their focus could be on selling products, or attracting a specific demographic, or mobilising action like tweeting or signing a petition.
Sophi as a customizable platform allows cultural content to be evaluated and scored according to configurable criteria. This cultural content is then used to engage with user data, whether personal information, or usage/activity data. Together this creates a model that enables predictive analytics that anticipates the popularity or success of cultural content.
The use of Sophi introduces variability in terms of whether and when you encounter a paywall as well as elastic pricing for subscription offers. In this way, it is efficient for the business but deceptive for the consumer; revenue maximisation at the expense of transparency.
The final concern with a system like Sophi.io is the risk that the interface could influence the journalism that is commissioned as a profit maximisation initiative. For instance, important policy debates might attract subscribers, but articles on celebrities might generate advertising. A system focused on subscribers would value subscriber data, which might provide greater depth and engagement, whereas a system focused on advertising might value volume over depth.
This all raises questions, like:
Do Globe subscribers - the stakeholders contributing the information that informs and calibrates Sophi’s model - understand that Sophi has created an individualised and automated interface between them and their news provider?
Do prospective subscribers understand that their use of the site and pitches to subscribe are customised to take advantage of their interest, attention, and price sensitivity?
To what extent is there informed consent about these relationships?
We believe that consumers of and contributors to the Globe and Mail’s content are unaware of these relationship(s) and are deserving of more transparency and explainability regarding the application of Sophi.io to their news-reading experience(s).
PS. I’ll be part of a panel discussing competition + digital stuff this Wednesday.