The Atlantic of New Zealand? Bauer brings its current affairs titles together in new online hub, aims for quality over quantity

Bauer, a company long accused of clinging to its print legacy, has gone a long way to shaking off that tag over the past few years with the launch of its digital hubs strategy. And it has been in serious launch mode over the over the last few months with the release of new brands Nadia and Paperboy. Now the publisher has rounded out is offer and unveiled a new online current affairs content site, dubbed Noted, that features content from its Listener, North & South, Metro and Paperboy brands (as well as a couple of other external partners). And journalists (and readers) lamenting the ongoing quest for the low hanging fruit are sure to like what it stands for.   

In a similar vein to its other content hubs Food to Love and Homes to Love, Noted will bring together content produced through the Bauer portfolio in a single location.

The site will largely be powered by the teams behind NZ Listener, North & South, Metro and Paperboy, but Bauer has also signed content-sharing deals (for audio, video and feature stories) with RNZ and The New York Times.

The launch announcement also coincides with the appointment of Cathy O’Sullivan, who left her role as Auckland editor-in-chief at Fairfax to take the reins as the head of digital strategy at Noted.

The arrival of O’Sullivan is a significant appointment for Bauer. A respected news operator, she has worked in various editorial roles across both Fairfax and APN (now NZME) over the last decade, contributing to biggest news sites in the country.         

Other recent arrivals supporting O’Sullivan are digital editor Victoria Young, digital producers Fay Pearson and Ryan Holder, and audience development manager Michael James.

While O’Sullivan’s career has its foundations in breaking news, she says that Noted will not focus on being first.

“The breaking news aspect is covered really well elsewhere, but what we can do is go behind the headlines and provide a different perspective with more depth,” O’Sullivan says.

O’Sullivan says she was drawn to the initiative because it addresses the need for in-depth journalism in the local market.  

The problem, she says, is not a lack of quality current affairs journalism, but rather that it’s hidden behind the mass of content.

Websites such as Stuff and the NZ Herald publish mountains of content every day, which invariably leads to the gruntier pieces being drowned out and disappearing down the endlessly changing homepage (or, increasingly, the newsfeed). 

“There is definitely depth … [but with]so much so much breaking news going on, the depth and the great journalism is buried,” she says.

O’Sullivan says the aim of Noted will be to create a single online home for the in-depth pieces Bauer journalists already produce for the print publications.

The focus here is definitely on creating a more premium publication that users can come to for analysis after a story has broken.

As a matter of comparison, Noted is more akin to Slate, the Atlantic or Mic.com than the Washington Post or The New York Times. Noted might cover similar news-based topics, but it will offer something unique in terms of the voice and style of the writing.

The Spinoff is perhaps the closest example we have of this approach being applied in the local market so far. It’s a publication that rarely breaks news (after all, breaking news is expensive and, as we’ve seen in recent years, not anywhere near as profitable as it used to be), but always offers readers something that they can’t find elsewhere. The publication’s publisher Duncan Greive has assembled a team of talented writers adept at offering a fresh perspective on what’s happening in the country (or, when relevant, the world) and has grown a sizeable audience as a result. 

And speaking of writers, O’Sullivan will certainly be spoilt for choice, with the likes of Virginia Larson (who has been asking for a website for the North & South brand for many years, in part because North & South regularly breaks stories that get picked up elsewhere and it’s not quite the same having content published on metro.co.nz), Pamela Stirling, Jeremy Hansen, Donna Chisholm and Rebecca Macfie. 

It’s still early days, but O’Sullivan is already thinking about the ways in which the team working at Bauer might be able to extend their current affairs prowess beyond writing into podcasting or video interviews as well. Of course, nothing is set in stone, but O’Sullivan makes the point that one of the major advantages of working with a smaller team is the speed at which things happen. 

“It’s really exciting for me coming from a big organisation and having a massive team to a small, nimble team,” says O’Sullivan. “If I think back on the times that I’ve enjoyed most [in my career], it’s been working in those smaller teams and rolling up my sleeves and just getting stuck in.”    

International guidance

Bauer head of digital Michael Fuyala says Bauer looked closely at the editorial and business models used at Atlantic Media and Mic.

Over the last ten years, Atlantic Media has shifted from being a print-dominated business to becoming an example of how a legacy publisher could adapt to stay relevant in the digital age.

Speaking at the FIPP World Congress event in Toronto in 2015, Atlantic Media chief operating officer Michael Finnegan pinpointed changes in operational structure as one of the core reasons behind the company’s turnaround.

“In 2005 almost all our revenue was print ad and circulation,” said Finnegan in the speech. “Then we made the decision to rush through new products, rather than save declining print products. We would let them decline gracefully and in a way that would protect the brand, but we made a heady push towards digital from 2007. We doubled down on events and introduced membership models to replace circulation.”

A key difference with Bauer’s strategy, however, is that it isn’t waiting for print numbers to “decline gracefully” and is instead looking for new print audiences by launching products such as Nadia and Paperboy.

However, like Atlantic Media, Bauer has also been investing heavily in digital. Over the last 18 months, Fuyala has had his hands full launching a number of digital products.

It started with FQ.co.nz in April last year, then came Food to Love and Homes to Love in May, followed by Women’s Weekly in November and now Noted has also been added to the mix. The old sites have already been switched off, and Bauer stopped offering paid-for digital subscriptions in the lead-up to this launch (as Paul Dykzeul, Bauer’s CEO, said in his inimitable style in an earlier interview: “[The Listener paywall] was done very badly, incredibly poorly. It was a disaster. It just didn’t work, and it was never going to work. That doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. But we basically got rid of it.”). 

“It’s not just the Atlantic.com but the broader group. They’ve launched a lot of really interesting products off the back of their premium content as well as a lot of digital-only products [like qz.com]. What we liked about them was they were a legacy or a heritage publisher that were also really innovating in the online space and they managed to get the best of both worlds.

Fuyala says Bauer’s digital portfolio already reaches over 1.3 million readers per month, and he expects Noted to give this a decent upward nudge—especially given these publications still command strong print circulation numbers. 

The Listener has a circulation of 47,500 copies, North & South is at 23,8000 and Metro sits further back at 7,500.

“In a year, these publications reach one in four New Zealanders in terms of cumulative readership, and two out of three of these readers sit in the top three socio-economic brackets, so we’ll so we’ll definitely be looking to engage that audience and use it as a key selling point for advertisers,” says Fuyala.

The reason why the readers are sitting in the top socio-economic brackets has a lot to with their age, which skews to the older side. So an advantage of the online title lies in its potential to reach a younger audience in addition to the loyal, older readers.        

“This product is for enhancing the experience of existing readers and taking the content to an entirely new batch of readers and new generation,” says Fuyala.

“We’ll be really looking for everyone from students all the way to retired people, and from urban to rural mindsets, because we’ve got a really broad content offering and diverse channels through which we can build those audiences.”

Fuyala says the aim is really to reach “curious New Zealanders” regardless of their age or location.

The strategic decision to target a broad spectrum of readers based on interest rather than arbitrary age brackets is line with the approach used by many of the most successful digital media companies.

Netflix vice president of product innovation Todd Yellin has told Warc that demographic data was not nearly as important as individual viewer interests, while Vice Media’s Hosi Simon has attributed much of the success of his organisation to the fact that young people are desperate for news.    

The point here is that just because young people aren’t buying Bauer’s print titles week in and week out doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in hard-hitting news and well-written current affairs. 

And readers aren’t the only ones who Bauer is attracting to the new site. As whispers about the new publication spread across the troubled news media industry, Fuyala says numerous—some high profile—journalists expressed interest about being involved.

“The only thing we’re scratching our heads about is what shape or form all those partnerships will take,” says Fuyala.   

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