How Fairfax NZ hit 2m by re-engineering its newsrooms

How Fairfax NZ hit 2m by re-engineering its newsroomsSinead Boucher, Fairfax NZ executive editor and group digital editor since 2007. – Fairfax Media’s prized digital asset in the proposed merger with NZME – has achieved a unique monthly audience two million. However to get there, the company had to completely overhaul its newsrooms and re-evaluate the role of print.

It was around 18 months ago when a radical plan to re-engineer Fairfax Media New Zealand to thrust it into a squarely digital future was conceived. The News Rewired project, as it was known, would see every single role either redefined or created anew so that every person was geared towards the publisher’s digital centerpiece,

Newsrooms across the country were decoupled from working on specific mastheads and transformed into a united engine room powering Stuff.

The transformation was completed before Christmas last year and by the end of March 2016, Stuff had grown its unique monthly audience to more than two million – an impressive feat in a country of around 4.5 million people.

The figures from the March Nielsen Online Ratings include audience from desktop and mobile web, but not the Stuff mobile app.

Sinead Boucher, Fairfax NZ executive editor and group digital editor since 2007, said News Rewired basically rebuilt all newsrooms from the ground up and was a significant factor in Stuff hitting the two million milestone.

Along the road to two million, Fairfax experimented with new digital platforms, put social media at the heart of the newsroom, handed out iPhones to journalists to increase video content and co-ordinated training for video production, search engine optimisation and quality.

Mobile was a key focus too. Developing a new article page for the mobile web was prioritised over desktop or redesigning the homepage.

“We saw that as the most important thing to roll out that would have the biggest impact on our audience’s enjoyment on the site,” explains Ms Boucher.

Behind the scenes, Fairfax also rolled out a new content management system that put everything into digital, with print products retro-fitted from it.

“Just in itself, moving people into the digital-centric content management system tripled our digital output overnight,” Ms Boucher says.

Curiously though, it was Fairfax’s print products that played a significant role in engineering the company around digital. Or rather, making the production of those newspapers far less onerous.

The design and template for Fairfax’s newspapers were streamlined, with daily and community mastheads sharing a universal blueprint each.

Journalists also now choose photos, captions and videos for their articles, ensuring all their work is “publish ready”.

We’ve taken out a lot of layers around production and things like that and just tried to make the technology do all the heavy lifting for us,” Ms Boucher said.

“By the end of the year we’d basically totally reinvented every part of our editorial operation and we saw that result both in how people were reacting to our printed products, which were improved, and Stuff just took off.”

An artist impression of Fairfax Media's new Auckland building. PHOTO: Fairfax Media

An artist impression of Fairfax Media’s new Auckland building. PHOTO: Fairfax Media

The newspapers themselves have been recast as just one product, and one audience, that Fairfax journalists serve. The priority is on serving local and national audiences with compelling content, not on a specific product.

“Instead of thinking about ourselves as an integrated newsroom, we think about ourselves as a digital newsroom where there’s a bit of print on the fringe,” Ms Boucher says.

Fairfax’s NZ newspapers do not have individual websites. Rather Stuff acts as a stable for online content.

However Ms Boucher isn’t concerned about the free news site cannibalising print revenue.

“We’re not worried at all about our own digital presence cannibalising print revenue because the world has changed in that respect already,” she says.

“Advertising is moving into digital formats and obviously Facebook and Google are clearing up a lot of that. So we’re just fortunate to be in a position where we’ve got a really big, burly site that can compete at the level that it does and have the audience scale that it does.”

Ms Boucher says native advertising and premium programmatic exchange KPEX, a joint-venture between Fairfax, NZME, MediaWorks and TVNZ, had been a big success in terms of building online revenue.

As Stuff moves into new digital platforms and social networks, Ms Boucher believes revenue opportunities will develop as their audience grows.

Their strategy is to focus on a small number of platforms, across a range of categories.

Stuff has experimented with messenger service WhatsApp, although thus far the work intensity required outweighs the payoff and they may eventually move to another platform.

However, it has had great success with its Snapchat channel, which was set up by a young intern last year.

Its audience has grown strongly, despite not featuring in Snapchat’s curation platform Discover, and Ms Boucher says it has probably the highest engagement level of all those platforms.

“When we say you’re audience focused, you have to take that to the point of, ‘Well where does the audience most want to consume your content and how?’,” she says.

“If they only want to be in Snapchat to do that, they’re still becoming fans of the Stuff brand and enjoying that, and we think that as we build that audience the revenue opportunities will grow and develop in that space too.”

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