Enhanced topic and geo-tagging technology on News Corp's Australian websites is part of a push to sustain subscriptions and arrest churn a year after the publisher began shutting its local print editions.
Almost exactly 12 months after readers of 60 of News' free newspapers in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia learned print editions were being "suspended", forcing them to paywalled digital content, executive chairman Michael Miller has announced two features to allow them to choose the stories directed to them.
The "hyperlocal news technology" will allow subscribers to personalise news by postcode, follow individual journalists and choose topics and subtopics in which they are interested.
In a statement today, Miller says the 'My News Feed' and 'My Local' initiatives combine "old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground reporting with the very best technology we believe is available in today's media market".
The inhouse development follows News' switch to a WordPress VIP managed platform, and mirrors in many respects the 'James, Your Digital Butler' subscriber retention project of its sister operation in the UK. Launched in 2019 and partly financed by Google, this used a combination of Twipe, AI learning inhouse technology not just to predict the stories a reader of The Times would find of interest, but what will engage him or her to the extent of maintaining a subscription they may have entered at a discount.
This is precisely the challenge News will be facing in Australia now, after driving former free-newspaper readers to its paywalled metro and regional websites at heavily-discounted rates a year ago.
Miller says the innovations will deliver subscribers "all the news they want, how they want and when they want seamlessly across all devices, whether it's hyperlocal, state or international news".
Subscribers can search on My Local by postcode, while My News Feed enables them to choose the sports and teams they want to read about. Miller says News is "continuing to support local and regional journalism" by enabling readers to get to local stories in a number of ways, and promises the moves will "especially benefit the company's regional and community journalism as it's unveiled in coming weeks".
Chief technology officer Julian Delany said a multi-stage rollout had already seen mastheads become faster, smarter, less congested and much more user-friendly. "Our technology is nuanced enough so that you can, for example, get stories about specific subtopics such as Collingwood Football Club but ignore all other AFL coverage," he says in the company's announcement.
News Corp Australia worked with WordPress VIP and local partner XWP first to migrate and simplify its sites - consolidating the various markup languages - and then building a platform for its internal development team.
The year of change which began with COVID-19 and the print closures which followed it have given News the scale needed for the project, with My News Feed and My Local applied to 77 community digital brands and 33 regional ones.
In News' The Australian News Corp general manager of product, metros, regionals and sport Maggie Burke gives the project an earlier start date, saying it followed an 18-month consultation process with subscribers and non-subscribers.
"We wanted to know what was needed to engage a wider audience, and what it would take to live up to modern-day expectations," she says, citing "the Netflixes of the world" as examples of digital products which were now expected "to know you, and to adjust to meet your needs".
Miller says the technology is "a definitive evolution" from significant changes it had made over the past year, making it less complex for audiences and advertisers, the "frictionless and personalised experience... a significant step in realising our digital future."
News says the capability is being rolled out across the company's websites, mobile sites and - in the weeks ahead - the apps of the state-based, regional and community mastheads.
In May 2019, when I travelled to News UK's office beside London Bridge to see the James project, a real estate agent's board offered, 'life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain'.
The storm raging then is nothing to the unexpected one which has followed, but it seems the lessons learned by the one-time 'old lady of Printing House Square' - with the help of a million Euros (A1.62 million) of Google Digital News Initiative money - are still being put to good use.
• Greater Brisbane's three-day lockdown provided a rare opportunity to glimpse behind the paywall of News Corp metro the Courier-Mail this morning.
It addresses me as 'Hi Peter' even though I gave up my print subscription almost two years ago and have never been a digital subscriber.
Interesting that the COVID coverage is accompanied by a batch of almost 80 'recommendation' headlines, almost two thirds of them sponsored, directly or through an arrangement with Taboola Feed. For hyper-local offerings of course, I'd have to sign up!