How newspapers will predict if you're going to unsubscribe

The New York Times hires its first chief data scientist. Will traditional media organizations catch up to the largest web companies?
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor
wall art at the New York Times.jpg
Have traditional media organizations caught up to the largest web companies?

With advertisers buying fewer newspaper ads, the New York Times has been selling digital subscriptions through a digital paywall instituted three years ago. The paper gets nine million visits to its homepage a day -- and if someone is going to unsubscribe, they want to know that before it happens. Technology Review reports

A year ago the company pulled together information that had been in “various silos” and formed a business intelligence group to start exploiting it. It’s part of a wider trend in which companies are using data to guide business decisions more directly.

“But we really needed someone to give us insights about why people subscribe and how to retain them,” says Marc Frons, chief information officer of the New York Times Company. “Before they pick up the phone and say ‘I want to cancel,’ you could predict by the patterns of their behavior, like not logging in as much, that they might do that.”

Earlier this year, the Times hired its first chief data scientist: Columbia University professor of applied mathematics Chris Wiggins, who builds predictive computer models for biology research.

His team will determine if the paper’s business problems can be solved with machine learning -- a set of statistical methods that use existing data to make predictions about similar situations, Tech Review explains. The machine learning group, Wiggins adds, will also help “learn from data about the content it produces and the way readers consume and navigate that content.”

Google spent $400 million this year acquiring a single machine-learning startup, and Amazon is currently advertising positions for 40 additional machine-learning scientists. And while the Times’ effort seems modest in scope by comparison, it’s worth noting that traditional publishers are trying to catch up to the largest web companies, Tech Review reports. Last year, Wall Street Journal publisher, News Corp., hired another Columbia statistician for machine learning and predictive modeling projects. 

“It’s a very exciting time to rethink what journalism is going to look like over the next 100 years,” Wiggins tells Columbia Spectator. “I really believe that journalism is really important to the functioning of a healthy democracy, and it’s being challenged right now because the central business of the past 200 years has evaporated.”

Image: vishpool via Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards