Fairfax shifts Stuff to new platform, aims to emulate nimbleness of BuzzFeed

In a recent interview with StopPress, BuzzFeed Australia editor Simon Crerar attributed a significant portion of the website’s success to the flexibility and continued development of the content management (CMS) system that the editorial team punches its lists into every day. 

“[The dev team at BuzzFeed] is constantly evolving our content management system, without us even asking for it,” he said in the interview. “[Quite often] some amazing new feature might just arrive … [and this]really gives us exciting new ways of presenting content.”

This virile, constantly evolving iteration of the CMS has given BuzzFeed a nimbleness that is perfectly suited to the online environment, and serves as a powerful tool in delivering content in a range of formats.

And while most mainstream media companies have until now retained a more traditional approach to publishing, other companies are starting to take note—and one such company is Fairfax. 

“This investment we’ve made is explicitly to achieve what BuzzFeed have achieved,” says Rob Hutchinson, the product development director at Fairfax Media. “Our goal is to have a CMS that unleashes the capabilities of the newsroom as much as possible in terms of digital storytelling.”


Hutchinson says Fairfax has updated the entire Stuff platform by migrating it to Adobe’s cloud-based content management system called Adobe Experience Manager.   

“Since September, we’ve been rolling sections of Stuff over to our new content management system and it was completed the week before Christmas, with the homepage being the very last to go into the new system.”

Hutchinson says the impact of this shift will not be immediately obvious to readers, but explains that it will make a major difference to the journalists and editors sitting in Fairfax newsrooms across the country.

“It’s very flexible for journalists, and what I mean by that is that it allows for the telling of news stories in an effective way, using lots of fresh media elements: videos, images, charts, diagrams, and snippets pulled out of Twitter and other media. It’s just so much easier.”

The new platform features a drag and drop interface that enables both the journalism and advertising teams to expedite processes that previously necessitated a substantial amount of time.

“We have a showcase every fortnight on what is about to be released,” says Hutchinson, “and I watched as the team demonstrated changing a navigation element in about 15 seconds that used to take a whole release [two weeks]. That’s the potential we now have.”

Any journalist punching stories into a CMS on a daily basis will understand the frustration of small finicky tasks that take far more time than they really should. And the team at Stuff will no doubt be pleased by some of the improvements introduced by the new system.  

“Even critical things like the straps across Stuff, which feature a series of images that rotate during the day, involved a very complex and technical process every few hours, and now an editor can just knock that out in a few minutes,” says Hutchinson.  

The drag-and-drop advantages also extend to the advertising side of the business, and Hutchinson says that ads don’t always have to be resized any longer.          

“Experience Manager allows us to create flexible components that are essentially containers, which can be quite smart. And what I mean by that is that the container will for example close itself if no ad is served, and therefore the white gap disappears … and containers can also expand themselves [for the image to fit in].”

Hutchinson has previously been integrally involved in the content marketing options facilitated through Stuff, and he says that the new system has also simplified this process for clients. 

“It has enabled us to build very flexible templates for our advertising partners, so they can have the full benefit our storytelling capabilities.”

This simplified approach means that now, instead of producing articles from scratch each time, Stuff can sell a piece of content that incorporates specific features.

This flexible approach to publishing keeps with international trends, which have seen various publications experiment with how content is presented to the audience. 

In the sporting realm ESPN has  found creative ways in which to present statistics and news stories that are readily available on other news sources. As evident in its recent list of the top ten most valuable football shirts in Europe, the website has become quite partial to parallax scrolling that allows users to seamlessly switch from one image to the next. 

And although the content published by the journalist is important in driving traffic, reader comments are also becoming increasingly useful in attracting engaged audiences. Until now, it has been a given that reader comments section should be tagged to the bottom of an article, but US-based publication Medium is challenging this convention.    

The company now incorporates comment sections throughout its articles, placing them alongside statements or quotes that might be topical points of discussion to the readers. By doing this, the company is able to encourage debate and it also provides an indicator of what writers could potentially elaborate on further. In this sense, the readers provide a guide of what they are interested in through what they choose to comment on.     

The ability to respond in real time to audience preferences and behaviour is one of the many advantages of digital publishing over print, and Hutchinson says that the new platform makes it easier for editors and journalists to identify what content readers are engaging with.    

“The new system is fully hooked into our analytics and our data management platform. So what we mean by that is that we have a real-time view of what’s happening on Stuff every single moment of the day.” 

Hutchinson says that this information is displayed on big screens all across the Fairfax newsrooms, giving editors real time access to what the most compelling stories are in New Zealand.  

But storing all this information on the cloud also comes with its risks. So is Hutchinson concerned about leaks or the North Koreans tapping into the interface?

“I don’t believe in this world that anyone can be 100 percent secure,” he says. “What I would say is that we are very proactive in constantly monitoring our systems and we take it very seriously … [But] It would be a fool to claim ‘nothing can happen to me.'”  

The data can also be segmented into what is popular in terms of social media sharing, search queries, and reader age groups and locations, allowing for what Hutchinson calls a more dynamic reading experience that could encourage users to return to the site several times a day. 

“Not only will there be new stories, but we will develop the stories that we know [readers]are most interested in. So, you might find a story that started out as three or four sentences when it broke is about ten paragraphs, 20 images and a video by the end of the day. And that story might’ve been read multiple times by the same user.”

Vox is also experimenting in keeping audiences interested in the same topic through its card stacks, which segment complex news stories into a series of card stacks—that could include text, graphics, videos or a combination of all three—that each address a different topic related to the overarching story. 

Not only does this make a layered news story—conventionally presented as a wall of text—more approachable but it also encourages the reader to return to see how the story develops. 

New card stacks related to a topic are also introduced when readers ask certain questions, meaning that Vox is able to align its content with the demands of its readers. 

With the flexibility of the new interface and the ability to produce templates, it is possible that Stuff could also start to experiment in alternative ways to present content—which could in turn attract an even bigger audience.

According to Nielsen’s statistics, Stuff attracted its largest digital audience to date in December, again overtaking Yahoo in the rankings for the month. A total of 1.594 million readers visited the website, clearly challenging the misconception that users log off during the holiday period. 

Campbell Mitchell, Fairfax Media’s marketing director, says that users don’t read less during the holiday period, but rather read different types of content. And the ability of Stuff to identify what readers want to read during a specific period of time is integrally important in achieving further growth. 

But the number of clicks isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a publication’s success. As Mitchell explains, it is also important for a publisher to a readership that is engaged and invested in the platform. 

On this topic, Mitchell points to the fact that Stuff Nation has grown by 20 percent in the last six months and now has approximately 160,000 contributors adding content to the website. 

And if Fairfax is to successfully emulate the success of publications such as BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Vice, then this army of content producers will play an important role.

As Crerar said to StopPress last year, BuzzFeed’s use of lighthearted content is an essential part of its model. He explained that readers don’t question BuzzFeed publishing tongue-in-cheek pieces, because the publication doesn’t haven’t a 200-year legacy that often creates an expectation of seriousness among major news publications. 
Fairfax sidesteps the possibility of damaging its legacy by keeping Stuff Nation as a discrete hub dedicated to the content that might not meet the high standards of professional journalism. 

And while Stuff will continue to be slammed for publishing stories that some readers don’t deem newsworthy, this will do little to dissuade the executive team from continuing to push for higher audience numbers.

As Mitchell explains: “Our next target is to overtake Trade Me.”  

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