Regional newspapers are becoming the first port of call for information during times of crisis, says Fairfax Regional Digital Media news director Bevan Shields.
Mr Shields says the most recent bushfire saga has seen newspaper websites become the first place communities go to for updates on unfolding crises.
“I think the take-home message for us from this and other fires and floods this year is that the regional digital network is really evolving into a de facto public service broadcaster,” he said.
“It’s a privilege our readers see us this way, but for us it also really drives home the importance of making sure we present accurate information in a timely fashion.”
Mr Shields runs Fairfax Regional Digital Media, a network of more than 140 newspapers stretching from the Wagin Argus to the Bega District News.
His team works with masthead journalists and editors, harvesting stories from around the country.
He is supported by a team of regional digital editors, embedded in larger newsrooms and in charge of smaller networks of newspapers.
Mr Shields said the bushfire crisis has tested his team, but it has been successful with regards to reader numbers, and reader engagement.
“Readers flocked to our sites during the crisis last week,” he said.
“The Lithgow Mercury recorded a 481 per cent spike, the Newcastle Herald went up 350 per cent, the Southern Highlands News registered a similar increase, and the Maitland Mercury was up about 227 per cent.”
When the fires were still spreading, mastheads had a live blog on their website, curated by the national team but with content sourced by local mastheads on the ground, RFS releases, social media, and content created by the metros.
This freed up the journalists to create more content, and subsequently find better stories.
Towards the tail end of the catastrophe, the mastheads started looking at how they can help their communities rebuild.
Fairfax Digital Regional Media wanted to do its bit to help, so it created a page on its website where readers could pay tribute to firefighters and volunteers who helped them out.
“We wanted to make sure we used our reach to send some love to the firies,” Mr Shields said.
“About 1500 messages have been posted and it’s still going up.”
Mr Shields said the network aims to keep building on the way they cover unfolding crises, given the audience will come to expect bigger and better things.
“The more we ramp up our digital coverage in times of crisis, the more readers will expect us to do the same thing, if not better,” he said.