18 Aug 2022

AI-Powered Sports Reporting More Than Doubled Audience For An Ohio Newsroom in 2021-22

Finally. As COVID receded, the 2021 – 22 high school sports season returned to a reasonable new normal. Games were on. Fans attended. Concession stands opened. Popcorn and hot dogs were consumed.

The return to business as usual meant that vast quantities of data flowed through the systems at Lede AI once again. Patterns in the data revealed a lot about the most comprehensive automated high school sports content engine on the planet. We reported early analysis in November of 2021. Here we will wrap up that early analysis with a comprehensive look at the entire high school sports season. This reporting is based in the analytics from our newsroom lab at Ohio’s Richland Source, where Lede AI was developed.

Throughout the 2021 – 22 sports season we’ve looked at referral sources, the demographics of readers, how to best combine real reporters with AI assistants, and more. Now that the season is winding to a close, we’ve run the numbers and put together a wrap up of what we learned.

How we sliced the data

As we did in November, we used Google Analytics to do a deep dive into the high school sports reporting from Richland Source. The date range examined was August 1, 2021 – May 31, 2022. The analysis includes all sports coverage, not just football.

We built a custom Google Analytics report to pool traffic into two distinct categories.

  1. Human-powered reporting. This is just what is sounds like. Traditional, sports journalism made by people. The human reporting came from a three county coverage area that includes roughly three dozen high schools and 200,000 people. Richland Source has one full-time sports reporter and deploys 3-4 additional reporters on football Friday nights and for other major events.

  2. AI-powered reporting. In this pool were statewide briefs generated by Lede AI and auto-published with no human intervention. Richland Source uses these briefs to cover the entire state of Ohio. The pool also included regional Friday night wrap-up articles generated by AI. The roundups were reviewed and supplemented by an editor before publishing.

From those two buckets, we looked closely at a user behavior, referral sources, and dug into how the hybrid workflow that combined great shoe-leather coverage with AI assistance played out through the season. Fig. 1 is a screen shot of the audience overview dashboard for the two data segments we analyzed.

Fig. 1: Screenshot of the high school sports coverage data sample from Richland Source.

5 Big Takeaways

🤖 Reporting powered by AI grows users. A lot.

There’s no way to overstate this: Adding Lede AI and widening the focus to statewide created an audience-acquisition machine.

Nothing drives subscriptions like high school sports coverage. In some markets it outperforms all pro sports coverage combined. If Richland Source were a paywalled site, it would’ve put 258,000 people into the funnel.

Richland Source saw total users, new users and sessions rise between 100% – 200% when combined with traditional reporting. They expected an increase, but this was much more than they imagined.

Adding AI grew high school sports from 9% to a 20% share of the site’s total users for the period. The growth came with no additional payroll and only 30 additional labor minutes a week to prep and publish regional roundups. More on that below.

Human-powered reporting was stickier. It drove as many sessions as AI, despite reporting on a much smaller area and having far fewer overall users.

🤖Users came from distinct channels

Traditional reporting dominated social traffic. This was not surprising given the locality and brand penetration Richland Source already had in their coverage area.

On the other hand, statewide AI readers came from organic search and referral apps like Newsbreak. Combined, the two methods delivered great audience acquisition across all four channels. We did a deep dive into referral traffic in this post.

👉 Something crucial that newsrooms should consider is the impact of referral traffic that is not social-dependent, especially from Meta / Facebook. Traffic due to the de-prioritization of news in the Facebook feed has already started to tank across the news industry.

It is crucial that newsrooms develop 1:1 relationships with readers. The high referral from organic SEO creates the conditions for that to happen through newsletter subscriptions and paid support.

USERS BY REFERRAL CHANNEL

The two mediums complimented each other. Human-powered reporting dominated social networks, while the vast majority of AI visitors came from organic search and referral apps like NewsBreak.

🤖 AI has potential to create more equity in sports coverage

There’s nothing conclusive, but our analysis revealed signs that AI deployed using crowdsourced data can create more equity in the sports covered and the schools where the athletes play.

Since the Lede AI database is fan-driven via Scorestream, the central driver of coverage is the fans that use the app. Newsrooms that work with school athletic departments to encourage use of Scorestream by the athletes and their families can drive more coverage across the spectrum of sports, geography and racial or ethnic makeup of the school being covered.

In other words, activated fans of any team at any school can ensure their results are scored, accurate, and covered by owning the experience via Scorestream.

Women’s basketball is a good example present in the Richland Source data. One can see below that football and boys basketball dominated in reader interest, but girls basketball over-indexed against boys soccer, lacrosse, and baseball.

When all referral sources were combined, girls basketball made up 15% of total unique page views.

Fig 2: Girls basketball was the 4th most popular sport and represented 15% of overall traffic when all referral sources were combined.

🤖Traditional reporting crushes on audience quality metrics.

Lede AI’s automated coverage doesn’t include art, quotes, or details about individual plays during the game. It’s reliable and accurate information people are looking for, but it isn’t journalism.

Richland Source used this to their advantage in a number of ways. Most notably, it meant the human reporters now could focus on the reporting only they can do. The metrics tied to quality reflected that throughout the year.

Photography and longer articles led to better audience-quality metrics for traditional reporting. 3x more page views, 4x longer sessions, and 2x better bounce rates speak to the value of traditional reporting at important games.

👉 Most everyone knows that adding even one feature image makes an article more shareable on social media. Quotes and deeper context make human-powered coverage more likely to be featured by editors or noticed in Saturday morning emails. Traditional prep reporting at Richland Source usually included a photo gallery of up to 40 images along with the long-form game coverage.

SESSION DURATION AND BOUNCE RATES

People-power crushed AI in these two crucial metrics of traffic quality. Longer sessions and a lower bounce rate point to a more engaged local audience.

PEOPLE-POWERED PAGEVIEWS

The ability of reporters to create photo galleries and other interactive assets led to a 3:1 margin in pageviews.

🤖 AI-powered reporting is a tremendous force multiplier when combined with people.

This is the big insight. Richland Source deployed Lede AI to take maximum advantage of the tool. It became a superpower.

  • No staff cuts and no additional payroll.

  • AI empowered coverage of over 9,500 additional games faster than any competitor and won the SEO game.

  • Traditional reporting continues to drive much deeper engagement than AI (think subscriptions and memberships)

  • 97% of all traffic was SEO, referral or direct.

  • Lede AI more than doubled high school sports SOV on the site.

  • 95% lift in total sessions

  • 176% lift in new users

  • Regional roundups are a new asset type that is ripe for sponsorship.

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