User-generated content will be a key element of Fairfax New Zealand’s new editorial strategy with the publisher set to expand the hugely successful Stuff Nation platform.
Stuff Nation publishes more than 2300 articles every year written by readers and the pieces feature frequently among the most read and commented articles on Stuff.co.nz, the online extension of Fairfax NZ mastheads.
With the rollout of a new newsroom model across Fairfax New Zealand mastheads occurring this year, Stuff Nation is set to become central to editorial discussions.
The new model places a greater focus on local journalism, with several new senior editorial roles based on geographical regions set to replace a smaller number of editors tied to individual mastheads.
Fairfax New Zealand group executive editor Sinead Boucher said one of the key changes at the heart of every newsroom discussion would be how readers might want to interact with the story. “How we involve our Stuff Nation community will be a key KPI of our editorial leadership,” she said.
“We will work to highlight that two-way relationship at the beginning of all our discussions. It will not be just a team working on Stuff Nation, but all newsrooms thinking about how the readers can get involved.”
Under the strategy, masthead newsrooms will set “assignments” for readers on newsworthy topics, as well as encouraging them to send in more personal topics they may wish to discuss. Pieces will be individually verified and edited by Fairfax journalists and edits discussed with the contributors.
“It’s not an attempt to get free content or do away with journalists,” Ms Boucher said. “It’s about our readers becoming part of the site.”
The site has become a platform for Stuff’s most engaged readers, with Stuff Nation content frequently placed alongside stories by journalists on the Stuff.co.nz homepage. Its popularity can be put down to the power of first-person accounts, according to its creators.
“Stuff readers were very loyal and very into the brand, and we wanted to create something that would give them a platform for their stories, views and voices to the site,” Ms Boucher said of Stuff Nation’s launch in September 2012.
“They have some really powerful stories to tell and often they’re the best person to tell those stories. We also saw it as a way to develop the Stuff community, allowing audiences to participate in a strong and meaningful way – for their benefit and for other readers.”
Few other news brands had offerings like Stuff Nation when it launched, with CNN’s iReport one of its only peers. Since then, sites like Guardian Eyewitness have brought citizen journalism further into the frame for publishers.
Fairfax New Zealand social and communities editor Janine Fenwick said reader contributions had become a key part of Stuff’s coverage of a wide range of issues.
“Bullying, the election, obesity, the road toll, marriage equality, the property market – the biggest issues facing New Zealand have been tackled by our audience,” Ms Fenwick said. “The Cricket World Cup was a divisive topic too.
“I’m constantly amazed at the quality and diversity of content we receive, and how our readers are so willing to put their lives and views out there.”
A piece on a young child’s silent near-drowning experience was among Stuff’s most popular stories three days in a row, remains in the site’s top 20 most-read stories on desktop and is the third most-read of the year on mobile, with a total of 387,000 page views. It is also Stuff’s biggest story on social media of 2015 so far, reaching more than 1.4 million people on Facebook.
Some pieces go beyond New Zealand. A father’s piece on his daughter with special needs ran as the splash on the main Stuff page in January before being picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald which ran it as the splash on smh.com.au.
The success has also transferred into print, with pieces including a young man’s story of his brain tumour diagnosis – and subsequent proposal from his girlfriend of one month – running in full as a feature across regional print publications in New Zealand in March.
“That’s something we’re hoping to do more of – running Stuff Nation content in full, in print, with a community focus,” Ms Fenwick said, “Getting into hyperlocal content, getting people to write about what they want to talk about and share. We’ll increasingly see more of these amazing first-person pieces running in print as Stuff Nation continues to grow.”
The site also offers commercial opportunities, with partnerships often a good fit for user generated content. A partnership with Frog Recruitment has seen readers submit entries in a search for New Zealand’s Top Office Dog, with picture-heavy BuzzFeed-style pieces introducing their favourite dogs and prizes to be awarded to the winners.
Plans are also underway to turn Stuff Nation into a network of communities, allowing members to follow other contributors and join groups dedicated to specific topics. Improvements in the back end of the site, including a new content management system, have paved the way for the site to transform in 2015.
The inaugural Stuff Nation Reader Awards are also set to kick off later in the year, recognising the site’s best contributors.
Ms Fenwick was struck by how attitudes towards user-generated content had changed since the site began. “When it started people weren’t really sure what it was and how it would work, so the content we got was a bit patchy and quite hard work,” she said. “Now I use 70 per cent or more of what we get because the quality is so good.
“People are used to seeing reader content and used to seeing it run alongside other content – not a separate section competing with content by journalists, but complementary to it. They are not mutually exclusive, they work in tandem.”
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