14 Jun 2023

Scoring Big with AI: Analyzing the Explosive Growth of High School Sports Reporting at Richland Source

The results from the 2022-2023 high school sports season are in, and they’re clear as can be. In every metric, effective use of AI and automation in local newsrooms leads to massive growth in audience.

How massive?

  • 129% increase in audience share for high school sports from 11 to 25%
  • 130% lift in users reading prep sports
  • 162% lift in new users to high school sports content
  • 17% increase in total users across all content
  • 318,000 new users into subscription funnels

To understand how deployment of Lede AI best works in a local newsroom, we dug deep into the analytics from our newsroom lab at Ohio’s Richland Source, where Lede AI was developed.


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

If there’s only one thing to take away it’s that strategic, people-first deployment is the fastest way to tangible results that grow audience, create revenue opportunities, and free journalists to focus on the big stories.

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)
  • 129% increase in audience share for high school sports from 11 to 25%
  • 130% lift in users reading prep sports
  • 162% lift in new users to high school sports content
  • 17% increase in total users across all content
  • 318,000 new users into subscription funnels

🤖 Reporting powered by AI grows users. A lot. Consistently. Over time.

In four years of consistent use from 2019-2023, Lede AI added millions of users that read high school sports reporting on their platform, and the numbers have grown every year even though the coverage area has not changed. 

Adding Lede AI sports coverage doubled the total share of audience for prep sports from 9% to 18% across the time period.

🤖 High school sports readers are very valuable

Nothing drives subscriptions like high school sports coverage.  In some markets it outperforms all pro sports coverage combined. Industry benchmarks attribute up to 40% of subscription starts to prep sports coverage.

 If Richland Source were a paywalled site, it would’ve put 318,000 new users into the funnel in 2022-23. 

Advertisers love high school sports as well. Adding Lede AI allowed Richland Source to tell powerful stories to sponsorship clients about statewide coverage to their target demographic and add direct-sale sponsorships to deliver ROI on the coverage.

🤖 AI traffic drives a huge SEO advantage

97% of statewide AI readers came from organic search and referral apps like Newsbreak. This probably has something to do with the speed of publishing, the number of games covered, and the intentional SEO-friendly headlines and body copy.

👉 It’s crucial that newsrooms prioritize the impact of SEO referral traffic. Traffic due to the de-prioritization of news in the Facebook feed has already started to tank across the news industry and it looks like it’s only going to get worse.

Traditional reporting dominated social traffic. This was not surprising given the locality and brand penetration Richland Source already had in their coverage area. It’s a further illustration of how a combination of human + AI reporting maximize effectiveness and value to audiences.

Combined, the two methods delivered great audience acquisition across all four channels. 

🤖 AI generated roundups solved for social and email audience channels

Richland Source added automatically generated sports roundups to the mix in 22-23 to address social and email opportunities to add value and grow audience. 

Roundup assets are longer and can publish with publisher-supplied art, which makes them ideal for use in email or social channels. RPMs are higher on roundups, as well due to their length and the potential for more ad loads.

Early results during the testing period were very promising. Users per asset were above 500 on average, which was 5x the average for individual stories.


🤖Traditional reporting crushes on audience quality metrics.

Most of 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.

How we sliced the data

Google Analytics was our tool to analyze the high school sports reporting from Richland Source. We looked at August 1, 2022 – May 31, 2023. The analysis includes all sports coverage, not just football.

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

  • 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.
  • 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. 

From those two buckets, we looked closely at 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. 

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