Future Tense: Fairfax’s Bernadette Courtney on rethinking community papers

In the 1920s, newspaper publishers would hire private investigators to leer over the shoulders of newspaper readers on public transport in an effort to learn which content was most popular. It was thought editors armed with this information were better placed to curate the type of content that readers were most likely to engage with.

Of course, editors in the online space now have this information instantly available to them through the analytics tools that provide real-time access to the content that they desire. However, in print the question of what readers want remains slightly more difficult to answer—and usually demands an investment in third-party research. 

Until recently, Fairfax had not invested substantially in any such research for its community papers.

“It’s fair to say they’ve been a little bit unloved,” says Bernadette Courtney, the editor in chief for the central region at Fairfax Media NZ. 

“There’s been no research done on why people pick up a community paper and there’s been very little investment into the look, design and feel of the papers.”     

A total of 57 papers spread from Kerikeri to Invercargill comprise the network of community publications owned by Fairfax, making them an integral part of the publisher’s offering. 

“We hit about 1.8 million people and the community titles are really important to Fairfax New Zealand in terms of revenue and audience.”

Courtney says that the need for updated research became evident last year at the Community Editors’ Conference, during which the Australian arm of Fairfax presented research looking at its community papers. The insights delivered inspired the team on this side of the ditch to commission Colmar Brunton to conduct research, leading to release of similar study in the local market late last year.

The research showed that while readers were engaged with the local content, updates were required to modernise the various publications. 

“Readers like the local news,” says Courtney. “They’re really keen on what’s on locally. Health and food were major drivers, but readers wanted a much better connection with the paper and with the people who work on the paper …  There was a lot of commentary about how Fairfax hadn’t invested enough in the look and feel of the community papers. It was very much just served up without any great love in it.”

In response to the research findings, Fairfax set about redesigning the various papers in its portfolio.

“We set up a project team with a number of editors from the community—with 66 titles, not everyone can have a voice,” Courtney explains. “Working with myself and a couple of other key senior staff, our editiorial design team came up with three separate designs. And the one we eventually went with was a blend of the three designs.”           

The Manawatu Tribune was the first revamped paper to hit Kiwi letterboxes, and this was subsequently followed by thirteen Auckland papers, including the Central Leader, Rodney Times and Papakura Courier

“The papers look quite sassy, very modern, and they reflect some of the new content that we’ve included,” says Courtney. 

“I think the content is even more exciting. We’ve got some very big names in the papers. We’ve got Nadia Lim on the basis of My Food Bag, and she’s providing a weekly healthy family recipe … We’ve also got Dr Libby [Weaver], who is another force to be reckoned with. She’s a big name. She is also used through our other titles. She is specifically answering questions from the community titles. The first week that introduced her to the community titles, we actually had three readers come into the Hawke’s Bay office with questions for Dr Libby.”

These high-profile contributors will now feature on the front pages of all the various publications. And although a pair of nationally syndicated columnists won’t provide the local angle so important to community papers, Courtney says that they are a good fit for other reasons.   

“When we did the research, our titles were seen as reliable, positive and connected, and Nadia and Dr Libby play to that strength.”

Fairfax is further consolidating its localism by integrating Neighbourly into its content. 

“We own 22 percent of that company,” says Courtney. “It’s a very grassroots online partner. We have regular weekly column called Backyard Banter in partnership with Neighbourly. It’s quite generic in its content at this stage, but we’ve got plans for that.”

Courtney says that since Fairfax bought into Neighbourly, membership to the service has increased across the country and it has also provided an additional perk in terms of generating news tips and leads for the journalists working at the various papers.  

“As that relationship blossoms, we hope to get more interactions with Neighbourly and our newsrooms,” she says.

In addition to incorporating these among other content changes, Fairfax has also streamlined its editorial and sales processes for its newsroom teams. 

“Some of our community papers were just unworkable to try make a display of local content. And that’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the legacy of how the papers were built over the years … So, working alongside [the] commercial [team], we’ve developed very clean books. It’s taken quite a few conversations to work through that, but the community papers are now 100 percent templated. We’ve developed very clean books. It’s taken quite a few conversations to work through that, but the community papers are now 100 percent template. Editors have a choice of templates for the front. There’s quite a lot of choice.”

Courtney argues that because editors no longer have to spend hours on newspaper layouts, they have more time to work on developing content for the pages.

Streamlining the process in this sense does seem to necessitate fewer staff members, given that design requirements have been reduced quite substantially. However, when asked by StopPress whether the changes to the community paper had thus far resulted in any job cuts, Fairfax comms manager Emma Carter said no.  

Courtney mentioned several times during the interview that the Fairfax has received an abundance of positive feedback in response to changes. But Courtney knows that compliments don’t pay bills, and she says that Fairfax hopes that the changes also allow for increased revenue opportunities. 

“It started off as an editorial process, but [the]commercial [department]was also involved from the start,” she says. “We always ask two questions: ‘Is there value in this for the reader?’ and ‘Is there value in this for the revenue stream?’ It’s still early days, but around Dr Libby, Nadia, Neighbourly and some of the new content, we do see some opportunities … There’s no point putting new content in, if we can’t sell around it. That’s ultimately been the aim. We want grow audience and grow revenue.”

At a time when newspaper readership continues to slide, it was somewhat surprising to hear Courtney so optimistic about the industry and Fairfax’s decision to invest in a medium that advertisers are starting to shy away from. And she says her optimism is derived from the fact that community papers are still telling stories that other mediums are either overlooking or don’t have access to.   

 “I think the communities titles are probably in the strongest position in the print stable, because they have such a connection with the local community.”

As Hive News founder Bernard Hickey recently told StopPress: “At the moment, you have a very large smorgasbord of options all offering the same content for free. You’ve got Radio New Zealand, RadioLive, Newstalk ZB, NZ Herald, Stuff, 3News, One News. It’s seven flavours of the same story within seconds.”

So perhaps the real strength of the community papers is that they don’t necessarily feature content that attracts the highest number of impressions, but rather focus on telling the stories that are most applicable to the people of a specific region. And because there is very little competition for telling of these stories, the community papers remain a valuable source of information for the inhabitants of Kerikeri, Invercargill and everywhere between.   

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