Over the course of the last year, Fairfax's primary digital masthead Stuff has been climbing its way up the rankings of the most-visited websites in New Zealand, illustrating that the Kiwi public quite still wants to be informed albeit in the digital rather than print channel.
In response to this shift in reading preference, Fairfax has actively been tweaking its strategy to facilitate better digital storytelling. This has included a recent update of its content management system, training journalists on how to film video on their smartphones, investing in an experiential and events unit, running digital marketing campaigns, and purchasing stakes in Neighbourly and Pricemaker.
And now, off the back of yesterday's ASA report showing that newspaper ad spend had dropped year on year by $25 million, Fairfax has announced a series of changes that will introduce more digital-centric approach to its news service.
In a release, Fairfax Media's group executive editor Sinead Boucher said that the company aims to introduce modern newsroom practices and editorial product innovation in an effort to better cater to an audience that accesses information when it wants to.
As is to be expected, these moves are likely to bring about several staff changes.
The Fairfax announcement says that it has proposed to de-establish seven editors' jobs and introduce 12 new senior opportunities.
Boucher was asked which editors' roles were potentially going to be dissolved, but she would not comment on account of ongoing staff consultations. She did however say that there will be an addition of staff rather than a reduction.
A source has however revealed to StopPress that the changes will impact some of the regional roles. It's understood, for example, the Manawatu Standard editor position will be replaced by a Manawatu regional editor, who will take charge of all publications, both print and online, in the region. It's also understood that Fairfax will be appointing a national communities editor to oversee the communities publications, as well as a range of content-marketing positions to further push its digital revenue. There will also likely be an increase in lifestyle-oriented staff.
Fairfax's local news follows on from an announcement made on the Australian side of the business on 11 March, confirming a proposal for 80 redundancies of full-time staff across Victoria in a move to upgrade newsrooms "by adopting more efficient ways of working, new systems, digital-first editorial production practices, and a vastly better local sales approach" (read the full Mumbrella report here).
Boucher says that such large-scale redundancies will not flow over to this side, and added that the Kiwi arm of the conglomerate is in a very different position to its Australian counterpart.
"We're forging our own direction in New Zealand," says Boucher. "Stuff is a real strength for us on a national level. The website posted another traffic record in the month of February with 1.71 million people visiting the site. Australia doesn't have anything like that."
Although the circumstances on the respective sides of the ditch are quite different, both these announcements place emphasis on modernising business practices to bring Fairfax publications in line with some of the more successful new media companies.
In a recent interview, Fairfax product development director Rob Hutchinson told StopPress that the company is looking for ways to emulate the nimbleness of BuzzFeed, Vice and the Huffington Post on a local level. And the conglomerate's investment in technology when viewed along aside structural changes to its news teams certainly aligns Stuff more closely with the approaches employed at these publications.
As Boucher explains: “The new technology and ways of working in our newsrooms means we’ll be able to draw more readily on the great content we produce from across New Zealand, and develop some really world-class innovative storytelling. Our array of quality local and national news is unmatched – and we’re going to take greater advantage of it.”
She says that the aim is to up-skill journalists, so that they are able to produce content ready for publishing. She says that modern journalists shouldn't have to rely on other staff members to embed videos, imagery other interactive material into stories.
"We want all 700 of our journalists across the country to be in the position of producing stories that are publish-ready."
And as more and more online consumption is driven by video footage, Fairfax is also pushing the videos capabilities of its staff through training programmes.
Last year, the company employed Al Jazeera, ITN and Sky News news editor Asher Finlayson as head of video at Fairfax Digital, and he has undertaken the task or training journalists around the country on how to use their smartphones to record footage when investigating stories.
"Over 100 of our journalists have already been trained, and they're already sending in fantastic videos from the field," she says. "Staff is buzzing and they're coming up with lots of new ideas."
And given the growing expectation that journalists should be multi-skilled, we could soon see the selfie-stick approach to reporting recently used by One News US correspondent Jack Tame spread to other publications.
Fairfax decided to pilot the new style of newsroom in Southland, because Boucher says that the team in the southern side sometimes feels separated from online developments.
"The regional papers have always been at the core of what we do and it's about showing the teams that this will continue," she says.
Pushing its digital strategy does make sense for Fairfax, given that the company's revenue across both the Australian and Kiwi markets has has grown significantly over the last year.
For purposes of context, the Fairfax financial report released on 19 February shows that digital advertising revenue increased Au$13.7 million while print advertising revenue decreased by AU$16 million for Australia's metropolitan papers (Fairfax has been asked for a similar breakdown for the Kiwi market).
Notably, the metropolitan papers in Australia are also generating funds via digital subs, which are fed through paywalls on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Boucher was asked whether Fairfax was still considering incorporating paywalls on this side of the ditch to drive digital revenue, but she says that this will not be happening.
Instead, she says that Fairfax New Zealand will be driving community membership programmes through its partnerships with organisations such as Neighbourly and Pricemaker.
"As we get to know our members we can tailor content specifically to them," she says.
She reiterated that no content—local or otherwise—would be hidden behind paywalls, and that the membership strategy was more about facilitating a means by which commercial partners can target certain readers more accurately.
And this approach could prove wise, given that a recent study found a reluctance on the part of millennials to pay for news, with some respondents seeing it as a right rather than a privlege.