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A chance to reimagine the paper: Stuff's Bernadette Courtney on the change to compact and her new role

This week, Stuff changed its nine major daily newspapers from broadsheet to compact size. StopPress spoke to Bernadette Courtney about why now was the right time for the company, what the change means and the transition into her new role of editor-in-chief – newsrooms.

By Georgina Harris | May 4, 2018 | news

Bernadette Courtney

As the saying goes, if you want something done ask a busy person to do it, and that's definitely the case for Stuff’s Bernadette Courtney.

Formerly the central editor-in-chief, including the editorship of The Dominion Post, she has stepped into a newly created national role of editor-in-chief – newsrooms. This position incorporates looking after all newsrooms bar Auckland, overseeing the Sunday Star Times newsroom and Stuff’s political team and as of late leading the crucial nationwide shift from broadsheet to compact.

On Monday, Stuff’s nine daily regionals and metropolitan papers - The Dominion Post, The Press, Manawatū Standard, Taranaki Daily News, Waikato Times, Nelson Mail, Marlborough Express, The Timaru Herald and The Southland Times -  switched to the smaller size for their Monday to Friday editions.

This decision to go compact was born both of both long-term vision and quick execution.

Courtney says around 18 months ago, Stuff ran some focus groups around the country to test the idea of moving to compacts.  

“There was a resounding ‘thumbs up, yeah, it’s about time you did it’ response. That sort of fermented and in October [chief executive] Sinead Boucher decided that’s what we were going to do.”

A small group of key senior staff, including Courtney, came together and worked out a plan with a five-month time frame.

With this being around the Christmas and summer period there was less time to undertake the project and says the reason it was able to be pulled together so quickly was having a dedicated, committed team and being really pragmatic around decisions.

“Once the decision had been made and staff had been informed, we had around 120 - 130 subscribers involved in sessions with the local editor, myself and someone from marketing.”

For these sessions, Stuff produced a regional compact prototype so that the subscribers could see what the paper might look like. Courtney says the team were blown away by the feedback from the focus groups, with the readers loving the size as well as the look, feel and content of the paper.

“We’ve done a lot of work on this product in terms of making it a paper that really appeals to subscribers. This is about reimaging the paper and putting an investment back into print.”

She says the only change in the newsroom itself around the compact is where Stuff has centralised production utilising templates.

“In the past, a lot of our papers have had bespoke pages which requires a lot of design elements, a lot of design staff. We’ve templated our publications right through with some elements of bespoke still being able to be ordered up – front pages, feature pages, special projects -  can still be bespoke pages.”

Due to this centralising, seven staff were affected but some of those have found other roles within the company.

“It’s quite a small change for numbers but I do want to acknowledge that we have lost designers because of the move to template.”

New beginnings

As well as the size and template, there are changes to what readers will see such as new columnists, a revamped share market table, a fresh look for the TV page and more colour for the weather pages.

The regions will get dedicated political pages, and The Dominion Post and The Press will gain dedicated national news pages plus an expanded four-page analysis section. And for anyone who has worked in a newsroom and knows the drama that comes if you do, the puzzles and crossword have not been touched, with additional crosswords added for the regional titles.

One of the more interesting changes within the compact is the inclusion of a daily obituaries page covering international, national and some local deaths. This was something Courtney says she drove from the beginning and tested with readers.

“We know that print subscribers do turn to the death notices as they are an older audience. There was an element of surprise from staff that we were going to have [a daily obituaries page], I said to them 'often the most extraordinary lives are not the famous lives…if you can tell it well it’s a great read', so we’re putting a lot of stock into that.”

The process was fun but Courtney says at the heart of every decision was the reader, but not forgetting the advertiser.

“All of the advertisements and the way we sell our ads have changed – they’ve all moved to modular shape which is going to be much easier for advertisers to book their ad campaigns.”

Despite these big moves for the company including a name change in August last year, it hasn’t been a totally smooth ride for Stuff with the announcement in February to close or sell 28 community print mastheads, a decision Courtney says wasn’t taken lightly.

She says the company is still committed to those local communities that were impacted, giving the example of Hawkes Bay where two titles - Napier Mail and Hastings Mail – will close this month but Stuff has retained the two reporters based in the region.

She puts forward Neighbourly, Stuff’s website designed to help Kiwis connect with their neighbours.

“Where the community print titles have been closed, there is a Neighbourly site and the community will still be able to access all the local content through the platform…we still have reporters in newsroom in all of big regions and in most of the smaller communities. We’re still covering those areas, we just don’t have a print title where it’s not viable.”

While Fairfax Media in Australia moved some papers from broadsheets to compact in 2013, Courtney says New Zealand did look at doing the same over the years but the time was never quite right.

“Obviously The New Zealand Herald went first…but Sinead Boucher decided it was time we had a new format and the appetite was there. It’s always a risk but we’re backing ourselves and we know from the focus groups and the prototypes that they loved the size and really liked the content and felt they were getting more value in their paper.”

New papers, new role

Among all this work and change of the compact, Courtney has had to adjust to her new role. She will continue to be based in Wellington but will travel and work out of the regional newsrooms.

The creation of the position came about when Boucher was made chief executive, necessitating a hunt for a new editorial director. That role was taken by Mark Stevens, who was previously group editor of digital and visual, and decided to restructure his senior team down to four from around eleven.

“I essentially look after all of our newsrooms bar Auckland which has its own designated editor-in-chief. That role has not been filled but we have an Auckland editor in place for six months – Blair Ensor who has been seconded from the Christchurch newsroom where he was chief news director.”

Having been in her previous job for years, almost a decade as editor at The Dominion Post, she says leaving that was a “little bit of a wrench” when you live and breathe something for so long.

However, she is adamant it's time for a new editor and some fresh ideas, and is happy with the appointment of Eric Janssen, who was the chief news director, into that role.

“He’s got some great idea for the newsroom and The Dominion Post.”

Looking ahead at new challenges and opportunities, she says the chance to work with newsrooms and mentor and coach young editors is something she loves and what her new role plays to, exciting her greatly.

Future-focused

Calling Stuff a “pretty brave company” for looking outside of journalism, acquiring partnerships and investments in start-ups such as Stuff Fibre and digital energy business EnergyClubNZ, Courtney says it's all about keeping journalism alive and investing in journalism.

“Money that is made through these other businesses comes back into insurance that we can still deliver the best journalism.”

Having been a journalist for 30 years, Courtney says what amazes her now is the speed of change.

“It’s a tough industry to be in, you have to be up for change. You have got to give them a reason to come to you, be it print, online or podcast.

“We don’t know what’s around the corner, we don’t know what new phones, gadgets, or way people are going to access news but what we know is that people want news and it doesn’t matter really how you access it as long as you still get it.”

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