Reading Readers: Inside The New York Times' AI-Powered Paywall

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Illustrations show how the New York Times' AI-powered paywall works.

A smart news paywall is optimizing subscriptions without driving away casual readers by showing them come-ons subscribe.

What’s new: The New York Times described Dynamic Meter, a machine learning system that decides how many free articles to provide to a given user before prompting them to register or subscribe.

How it works: The newspaper’s data science team ran a randomized, controlled trial and found that delivering more pop-ups that ask readers to subscribe resulted in more subscriptions but fewer page views, while delivering fewer popups resulted in fewer subscriptions but greater page views.

How it works: The New York Times’ data science team collected a dataset by running a randomized, controlled trial that tracked the behavior of registered — but not yet subscribed — users with various characteristics. Generally, delivering more pop-ups that asked them to subscribe resulted in more subscriptions but fewer page views (prior to subscribing), while delivering fewer popups resulted in fewer subscriptions but greater page views.

  • The authors trained two S-learner models on anonymized user behavior and profile data from the trial. One learned to predict the number of pages a given user would view without any intervention. The other learned to predict the user’s likelihood to subscribe. The authors combined the loss functions, so the system optimized them simultaneously.
  • An adjustable parameter set the degree to which the models would optimize for page views versus subscriptions. The authors adjusted that parameter and retrained the models for each value throughout its 0-to-1 range. This produced a set of optimal solutions, called a Pareto front, depending on the user’s features.
  • At inference, given a user, the system chooses the point in the Pareto front that matches a monthly goal for new paid subscriptions. That point, being a model that specifies a certain number of page views, supplies the number of pages to show the user.

Behind the news: The Wall Street Journal, Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also use machine learning to maximize subscriptions.
Why it matters: The shift in news consumption from print to online devastated publishers, in part because they’re forced to compete with the panoply of attention-grabbing content on the web. Smart paywalls can help them thrive by tantalizing readers with free content, then forcing them to decide whether they value it relative to everything else the web has to offer.
We’re thinking: News is critical to a free society, and it’s important to distribute it fairly. Does allowing some people to read more articles than others give those people an advantage over people who are allowed to read fewer articles? Is it okay to offer a wealthy person five articles and a less-wealthy person 10 before demanding that they subscribe — or vice versa? While AI can help companies capture greater financial value, many questions of social value remain to be answered.

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