Sonali Verma is the director of business development for Sophi.io at The Globe and Mail in Canada. Sophi.io is an artificial-intelligence and machine-learning platform developed in collaboration with The Globe’s data science team.
With The Globe since 2008, Verma works with newsrooms all over the world to help them transform their business models and embrace a data-driven culture. As the editor managing digital production and audience engagement teams, she led a mind shift in getting journalists to understand how data could make them more effective in attracting and retaining subscribers, while staying true to their mission to build a better Canada.
She has been Sophi’s senior product manager and director of customer success, and also oversaw marketing efforts that won several international awards. Her current role as director of business development entails working closely with media organizations to help them build sustainable reader revenue by using automation, prediction and optimization technology – without alienating their newsrooms.
As a new board member for Local Media Association, we asked Verma about her experience in the industry and the transformation that is critical to sustainability.
How has the local media industry transformed since you began working in it?
I started working in the media business before the internet was a thing, so the word “transformation” is not an exaggeration. The most remarkable change has been on reader revenue or building a sustainable business. I look back now and think, wow, there was a time when it was normal to just give your content away to everyone and to not even think about gathering as much data as possible about your readers.
What areas of focus do you think will have the most positive impact on your organization’s future?
We have invested aggressively in data science over the past decade. More than 10% of our workforce is now data scientists and data engineers. This investment is paying off in spades. We have found that every data scientist whom we have hired has paid for the next one. They have tackled some of the thorniest problems in the media business, such as figuring out which content our audience values, how to put it in front of them, and asking them to pay at the right time. We are now working with publishers on five continents to help them solve similar problems.
What is the biggest challenge facing the local media industry today?
Uncertainty around money. Many media companies are still figuring out what a sustainable business looks like. They have strategies and they have plans, but they don’t yet know if they will pan out, and it’s not possible to say when another event like the pandemic or a recession is going to come along and send them back to the drawing board.
What do you think is the biggest opportunity for the local media industry?
There is a real need for high-quality information and news in an era when disinformation is rampant. The opportunity is to build trust with audiences and ensure that they are armed with facts and opinions that help them make sound decisions while voting or parenting or investing or living any other aspect of their lives. Nobody has their ear to the ground better than local journalists do, and their readers need to see that as well.
Why are you excited to join the LMA board of directors?
I’m excited about this because I see the impact that the LMA has. It undertakes ambitious projects, such as Word In Black, and executes them with a real sense of focus and intensity. It believes in innovation and technology, an area where the media industry has not always responded swiftly to change. And I love the collaborations that it fosters – all of us have so much to learn from each other.