Media Briefing: Publishers explore the business-side applications of generative AI 

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

The efficiencies of generative AI

Between the two ends of the publisher-AI company relationship spectrum (copyright infringement lawsuits vs. licensing deals), a fair number of publishers are exploring the capabilities of this technology to streamline their business-side operations. 

Last fall, BDG, BuzzFeed and Trusted Media Brands shared how they were testing AI copilots and private chatbots to make their sales organizations more efficient — and ultimately more productive. Now, Time and The Wall Street Journal are looking for other methods of using generative AI internally to both improve their teams’ efficiencies as well as create more turnkey offerings that will speed up the rate of doing business. 

“We are using generative AI to improve our operations and our workflows … how do we do more with less?” said Sharon Milz, chief information officer at Time during an on-stage conversation at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado, last week. 

After initially testing operational use cases for AI tools on the engineering team, which Milz oversees, she said that Time is in the process of finding and testing other AI tools that can be used across the organization to give all departments the ability to reduce some of the menial tasks in their day-to-day operations. 

Meanwhile the WSJ’s new AI-based ad tool, called Thematic AI, was built to amplify clients’ in-house produced marketing campaigns or thought leadership content to WSJ’s audience in an “always on” capacity that’s both easy and fast for clients and the publisher’s sales team to deploy campaigns.  

Faster sales with little lift

Thematic AI serves as a library that clients can upload their content into, and the algorithm distributes it as an ad unit to specific readers who are most likely to click on it, based on WSJ’s first-party segment data like their job title or division as well as contextual information like what types of content they’re reading.

It’s been live for about two weeks, according to Katie Weber, svp of commercial strategy and head of financial services at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, and while it is only available as a direct-sold product to specific clients right now (and not programmatically), it’s designed to be an “always on strategy.”

“From a ‘go live’ perspective, it can happen in a matter of a week or two vs. many weeks in some instances for other, less automated forms of [campaigns],” said Weber, adding that after a client uploads their content into the library, WSJ’s client services team evaluates the content and creates a necessary ad unit, but otherwise the algorithm takes care of the rest. 

In terms of pricing, Weber said Thematic AI is priced based on the same CPM used across its advertising business, declining to share the exact rate, as well as a “relatively low production fee” that will cover the cost of creative units.

Weber said AI tools like this in the sales process ultimately are derived on the goal of “more operational efficiency, particularly in the streamlining media planning efforts or RFP process – kind of automating some of the low-touch solutions across our work streams here so that we can [free-up] resources to focus on some of the higher-touch campaigns that are the majority of our business.”

Improving the chances of closing a sale 

Milz echoed the sentiment that AI tools in ad sales have the potential to reallocate seller’s time to focus on the campaigns that they have the highest chance of winning. 

As a Salesforce customer (and also owned by Salesforce’s CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff), Time is using some of the AI tools that the customer relationship management (CRM) software company currently provides including data-based forecasting.

“We have the ability to do better forecasting by using data that we already had [from previous RFPs and sales decks] … to figure it out, truly, if we’re going to be able to close an opportunity or which opportunity we should put more focus on because the probabilities are better,” said Milz. 

She continued that AI tools are also used in sales pitches to identify specific keywords that sellers are then trained to use to promote products in their conversations with clients. Time is also currently testing a product that will create PowerPoint presentations using Time’s sales templates and design style based on in-bound RFPs. 

All of the tools are measured on strict time frame KPIs, looking at how much time the tool saved any given employee, to determine if it’s worth the investment or time to train other staffers to use it. 

The evolving relationship 

Amid the tests of AI to make a publisher’s operations more efficient, the brewing tensions between AI companies and publishers is likely to persist. Milz is convinced, however, that collaboration between the two parties is critical when it comes to solving macro concerns around misinformation. 

“There’s only going to be two options for generative AI companies and publishers: It’s either going to be a license [deal] or [a lawsuit],” said Milz. 

As of the end of March, Time has not signed a licensing deal with a generative AI company à la Axel Springer and OpenAI, but Milz said her team is in active conversations with several AI tech companies, the goal being to “build a partnership with most of them” in time.  

And while the copyright concerns stand among publishers, Milz argues that one of the best ways to combat misinformation perpetuated by AI hallucinations and rudimentary chatbots is training the large language models on accurate information and content that publishers produce.

What we’ve heard

“What we’re finding is a lot of [advertisers and buyers] are interested in doing data collaboration … where if you have a publisher-defined audience and you have a way of using your information to help them extend that in an interesting way, there’s an appetite to figure out how to do that. So it’s not all sitting on the sort of shoulders of that first-party data owner.”

A publisher during the Digiday Publishing Summit town hall.

Election year traffic slump

It’s admittedly difficult to compare the “Trump bump” publishers experienced in 2020 to this year. But this year’s presidential election cycle represents a bright spot in a media landscape darkened by declining referral traffic, and news publishers are waiting to see if this year’s election will bring in a boost of traffic to their sites.

“The high mark was 2020. … Those kinds of numbers are going to be tough to attain,” said Bob Cusack, editor-in-chief of The Hill. “But I do think 2024 presents an opportunity. We make most of our money in advertising. So traffic is money. Traffic is important. And traffic usually goes up in a presidential election [year].”

Last month, Digiday reported that publishers had yet to see any impact in political ad spend, despite the fact that this election cycle is expected to be the most expensive ever. And so far, only some of the largest news publishers are seeing a traffic bump too.

Of the top 30 news and information sites overall ranked by Comscore’s data of U.S. desktop and mobile unique visitors, only eight saw higher traffic in February 2024 compared to February 2020, per Comscore’s latest data. The rest saw overall declines or were roughly flat.

The publisher with the biggest traffic increase was The Associated Press, which grew unique visitors by 97% to 34.1 million from February 2020 to February 2024. The biggest decrease, on the other hand, was Mail Online/Daily Mail, which fell 55% to 34.6 million in that same time period.

Of the top 10 news and information sites, five experienced declines in unique visitors from February 2020 to February 2024, including USA Today Network, CNN, Fox News Media, The New York Times and ABC News.

Here’s a chart looking at the top 10 news and information sites, according to Comscore’s data:

Right-wing media isn’t faring any better, according to analysis by TheRighting, which tracks traffic to conservative websites. All of the top 10 right-wing websites experienced traffic declines from February 2020 to February 2024 — except Newsmax, which grew 37%.

The biggest decline of right-wing media was experienced by The Washington Times, which fell 89% in that time period to 1.4 million unique visitors in February 2024. 

Kevin Ponniah, BBC News’ head of digital news for North America, remains hopeful that a bump will be possible: “We see a big audience opportunity in the next [few] months until the election.” — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

$48.8 million: The amount of money that Sports Illustrated owner, Authentic Brands Group, is suing Manoj Bhargava and the magazine’s former publisher, Arena Group, for in missed payments. Bhargava owns a majority stake in Arena Group.

1 year: The amount of time that The Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Evan Gershkovich has been detained in Russia, having been accused by the Russian government of spying for the American government. 

1,197: The number of “pink slime” sites, also known as political propaganda sites masquerading as local news outlets, that are operating in the U.S. as of April 1.  

What we’ve covered

Four months in, here’s the rundown of Google’s Chrome cookie conundrum so far: 

  • A grand total of one percent of browser traffic is now free from third-party cookies. 
  • There’s been a medley of trial and error, wild guesses, and enough pontificating to fill a library. Time to hit pause, sift through the wreckage of the cookiepocalypse . 

See how far Google’s come (or not) in the cookie deprecation process here

How Axios Entertainment is looking to expand its original programming business:

  • Axios only formally unveiled its entertainment division in January, but the news publisher already has its sights set on expanding its foray into producing original shows and movies.
  • Bringing production in-house would help to make the programs more lucrative for the publisher. 

Learn why Axios is going all-in on original video programming and production here.

G/O Media and Kotaku staff are locked in a battle for the gaming website’s soul and business:

  • Kotaku’s future is hanging in the balance, hinging on whether or not the online publication’s owner G/O Media succeeds in transforming it from a gaming news outlet to a hub for game guides.
  • On March 21, Kotaku editor-in-chief Jen Glennon resigned from her role at the company, reportedly writing a letter to G/O Media executives over their choice to prioritize said guides over news. 

Read more about the latest tensions within G/O Media here

How The New York Times is using visuals to boost podcast discovery and grow listenership:

  • To grow podcast listenership and help people discover new shows this year, The New York Times is experimenting with creating images and video on platforms like YouTube and its own audio app.
  • Onstage Wednesday at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado, Nina Lassam, vp of business and head of audience growth, audio at The New York Times, addressed podcasters’ long-running challenge of finding new listeners. 

Read how the Times is addressing the challenges of audio audience growth here.

What we’re reading

The Wall Street Journal staffers fear more layoffs:

After a spike in disciplinary meetings, The Journal’s union members participated in a coordinated 15-minute work stoppage last Thursday to accuse editor-in-chief Emma Tucker of targeting staffers for dismissal, Business Insider reported.  

The New York Times is rolling out automated voice narrations of its articles: 

Axios reported that starting this week, the Times will publish automated voice narrations of three-quarters of its articles that will be available to 10% of its readers on its website, news app and audio app. The publisher will eventually roll it out to all published articles and all app users as the company works to position itself as one of the biggest audio news companies in the world.

How Vice became a ‘clown show’: 

While once heralded as a brash, young news site, Vice’s multi-year downfall culminated this February in the termination of its news division, hundreds of layoffs and ceasing publication on its website in favor of social platforms. The Verge reported that the leadership tier of the company was rife with overspending on anything but its bills. 

Yahoo News acquired news app Artifact: 

A few months after the AI-powered news app Artifact announced it would be slowing down operations due to a crowded market, Yahoo News announced it was acquiring the app, which has since transformed into more of a Twitter replacement than news aggregator. Artifact’s personalization technology will be integrated across Yahoo and the Yahoo News app.

Apple is prioritizing subscription podcasts:

Apple is increasing the likelihood of shows being featured at the top of its Podcasts feed, if they’re a part of the Apple Podcasts Subscriptions program, according to Semafor. The program debuted in 2021, but in recent months, the company is encouraging podcast publishers to fork over a portion of their revenue in the form of subscriptions in exchange for better placement in feed.

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