Fairfax Media is celebrating a victory over its main rival APN after Nielsen numbers showed more Aucklanders are reading stuff.co.nz than any other site, with its unique audience for September in Auckland clocking in at 391,000 compared to the nzherald.co.nz’s 360,000.
Sinead Boucher, who has been in the role of group executive editor for around four weeks, says it has been a couple of years since Stuff overtook the Herald and became the biggest news site in the country. “But Auckland has always been the battleground”. So it's a big win and the team are pretty excited about it.
According to Nielsen, Stuff is also the top news site in terms of numbers in all regions, and it also leads the market in all key audience segments:
Stuff.co.nz - News & Information 1.4 million unique monthly viewers
Life & Style - 510,000 unique monthly viewers
Technology - 341,000 unique monthly viewers
Entertainment - 599,000 unique monthly viewers
Business - 568,000 unique monthly viewers
Food - 224,000 unique monthly viewers
Travel - 321,000 unique monthly viewers
Boucher says taking top spot in Auckland for the first time can be put down to a combination of factors, including the huge upsurge in mobile traffic (Stuff is also the country's number one mobile news site), the significant investment put into the Auckland newsroom over the past couple of years and its digital first strategy for breaking news.
'How many' is obviously a crucial metric for online publishers (and also the media agencies looking for the most eyeballs for their clients’ ads) and there has been a bit of an arms race between publishers in recent years on this front. But, like other media, she says it's also focused on engagement.
“It’s really important to be number one,” she says. “And now we’re number one in all markets as well as in all categories, so that’s a great position to be in. But we also look at it in terms of engagement, like how many comments we’re getting and how many shares. And that’s not just from a traffic point of view. It's also to be connected in to what readers are interested in.”
Some believe the quest for audience numbers at all costs is a slippery slope for publishers, with all roads leading to link bait and hot babes on the home page, something Stuff is regularly accused of (as per usual, The Onion nailed it with this fake opinion piece).
She responds to that by saying "not a single one of the Stuff editors edits by numbers". She says Stuff is "about breaking news and credible journalism", but there’s also room for a bit of light alongside the shade.
“That’s what people are like in real life,” she says. “They might want a bit of entertainment in their lunchbreak.”
So while the audience numbers are worth shouting about, is Stuff profitable?
Boucher says yes and it’s “growing really strongly”. Display advertising is still its major earner, but it is moving in the direction of content partnerships, as evidenced by the recent deal it struck up with the House of Travel, an idea that allows Fairfax to create content and sell its audiences, while at the same time fitting with House of Travel’s commercial strategy. And she says there will be more of that in the future as it looks for additional revenue streams.
“Nothing is going to stop us being fiercely independent around our journalism. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at audiences and content in specific areas that meets a specific need, such as travel and lifestyle.”
Like APN, which recently appointed ex-Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns to the new role of editor for content partnership, she says Fairfax has recently hired Lucy Corry as commercial partnerships manager to tap into this fast-growing area.
Speaking of new revenue streams, knowledgeable sources have told us that APN is set to launch a paywall in mid February next year. But Boucher says “no firm decisions have been made at this stage” for Fairfax, despite some success in Australia with paywalls for the Fairfax Metro business. It is actively looking at what might work, of course and, given the strain the parent company is under, new revenue streams are exactly what it needs. But “we’re a different market and different structure”, she says.
Back in 2011, Fairfax launched Auckland Now, which was seen as an attempt to bolster its profile in an important market that had traditionally been dominated by APN. Boucher says that is still in operation, but it’s more at a community news level and, when appropriate, good stories from its suburban papers can be fed into the main Stuff site.
She says it has worked hard to bring its journalists together, with the Sunday teams, the suburban teams and the 50-60 staff who work specifically on digital properties (around 50-60) all based in the same place in Hereford St, making it the biggest newsroom in the country. She says the days where the traditionalists would only write for ‘their’ masthead are gone (although it’s fair to say there is certainly still some loyalty to specific newspaper brands) and its focus is now on delivering the best stories in the medium they're best suited to it, “whether it’s digital, in a specific masthead or in the Sunday papers”.
“All of our journalists write across our platforms,” she says. “If you work for the Dominion Post, you’re working for Stuff and you’re working for the central edition of the Sunday Star Times. What we’ve tried to talk to journalists about is that you can have full control of your story and reach a much larger audience than if it was just for your masthead.”
She points to the recent example of a community reporter who managed to get a good audio interview with Len Brown, and that was able to get a much broader audience through the national site. And the ability to post content from across its network is one of Stuff’s major strengths, she says.
While editor Mark Stevens is based in Wellington, she says it has staff working specifically for digital in Auckland and Christchurch and it also employs people in the US and UK to update content overnight.
She started about seven years ago and she says it was a Wellington role where there were “five people off in the corner”. But it wasn’t a live site. It was largely about uploading newspaper content at the end of the day. Now she says it’s about breaking news, not holding stuff back for print and "artificially controlling the news flow".
She says it’s really important to win the audience battle and it’s "focused on delivering the absolute best products". Increasingly, that means adapting to a world where content is being consumed via mobile devices (mobile accounts for one third of Stuff’s audience, and she says it won’t be long until its half). And video, community and data journalism are also much more prominent.
“We’re doing some innovative stuff in that space and we absolutely need to nail it. But it’s putting us in a good position to extend that lead.”
The audience win in Auckland is complemented by Stuff winning an Online Journalism Award at the annual awards ceremony in Atlanta. Stuff Nation, the digital community and user-generated content platform, won the Online Commentary award for medium size sites, putting it alongside the likes of the Washington Post, the Guardian and the New York Times.
“Stuff has always had an ethos of trying new things and developing new ways of connecting of connecting with its audience," Boucher says. "It is a great credit to Stuff Nation’s editor Janine Fenwick and the whole team that we’ve achieved this award only one year after launch.”
Fairfax Media has also been blowing its trumpet over its Essential Mums website, which was launched one year ago and is now the country's most visited parenting site, with a monthly unique audience of 190,000 and more than 719,000 pages views per month.
Editor Kate Geenty says it has quickly grown over the past year to become much more than a source of support and knowledge for would-be and new parents.
“By also emphasising the broader lifestyle and relationship issues facing women today we’ve created a site that recognises that even though life changes when you become a parent, you don’t lose who you are," she says. "Our focus on a broad range of great content has resulted in strong satisfaction rate of 82 percent from our readers [based on reader survey], and a strong growth in traffic each month since launching in October 2012."