Investing in quality journalism: Shayne Currie on NZ Herald Focus’ award-winning audience growth

“It’s a big nod to and recognition of the growing demand from audiences for great video content,” says managing editor Shayne Currie about NZ Herald Focus.

And that audience wasn’t necessarily one that it was tapping into with NZ Herald’s online and print offerings, so creating the new video brand gave NZME an opportunity to grow its news-consuming audience.

It’s this reason Currie gives for why Focus was the winner of the ‘Best Launch of a Brand or Product to Create An Audience Segment’ at the International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress, beating out London’s Financial Times and Belgium’s De Persgroep as finalists. He says it’s amazing to have beaten the Financial Times, which relaunched its website last year, but points out the category’s a celebration of work that’s generated a new audience.

“While our traditional, loyal Herald readers are watching Focus, we’ve also created a big brand new audience for advertisers that might not traditionally have tuned in or who might have been watching videos but are now enjoying them on what was once a publisher of newspapers.”

NZME launched Focus in April last year with a team made up of Laura McGoldrick, Tristram Clayton, Niva Retimanu and Tony Veitch, with an ambition of driving video streams in excess of 500,000 a week. However, that goal was reassessed after it proved to be a hugely popular platform and the numbers climbed. It now boasts close to one million streams a week across all platforms and close to two million views a week during breaking news events.

It’s also overachieved its goal of having 50 percent of its audience under the age of 40 as its achieved a 69 percent reach for that demographic.

That quick growth curve has also been contributed to by reducing the length of the videos and upping their frequency, or as Currie calls “slicing and dicing”.

While it initially started by producing eight- to 10-minute videos at various times of the day, like midday, it soon discovered the audience prefers 30- to 90-second video news clips that can be attached to articles or be presented as a stand-alone piece.

“We pivoted really quickly,” Currie says, and it now aims to produce six to eight videos a day. However, based on demand and the events of the day, that can be as many as 20.

And at the beginning of all those videos is Vodafone, which signed on as its commercial partner.

NZ On Air has also come on board to help it create NZ Herald Local Focus, which put four journalists in different regions across New Zealand to create videos.

As well as having a dedicated section on nzherald.co.nz and being attached to its stories, Focus also has a home on WatchMe, which previously only focused on entertainment. Before Focus, NZME lacked a dedicated news video brand.

But that’s not to say NZME hadn’t produced any video for its news stories. Currie says it’s been playing in the news video space for a long time, but by creating the Focus brand, there’s now a lot more structure around it and there’s a criteria the videos have to reach.

“So if I’m out on the front line and I’m filming a fire or a car crash or something like that, then that would be a general video. The Focus videos are much more planned and unique – and, along with the fast-breaking news videos, that’s important to the Herald brand overall.”

He says the exclusive, strong journalism Focus provides also plays a big part in NZME’s aim to make at least one-quarter of its content unique.

“Without that exclusive journalism, we might as well give up, we need to invest in journalism and we need to invest in it strongly.”

That investment has come in the form of its new newsroom which, 18 months in, continues to make sure the various departments, including NZ Herald Newstalk ZB, Radio Sport and now Focus, work in synch.

NZME is also investing in its investigations team and for journalists to have the time to delve deep into stories.

That bringing together of the departments ensures Focus can quickly turn over a video and remain up to date with breaking news. For example, when news came through about the Manchester concert attack this week, Currie says editor Sarah Hall was in the centre of the newsroom setting up live stream interviews with witnesses on the ground, “and that was all in five minutes”, he says.

Outside the Auckland newsroom and in the regions, Currie says the video journalists are well trained, flexible and self-equipped to front the videos as well as produce them.

“We wanted it to be an agile, well-produced video news show and I think we’ve displayed we can do that.”

He raises the point of its agility again when the topic of 6pm news bulletins is raised, because while he can’t say whether or not Focus’ continuous reporting throughout the day has had impact on those tuning into the 6pm news, he can recognise a difference in how they operate.

“I think video for any media organisation or publisher is just so vital now that it’s crazy to think we should hold video until a certain time of the day in a news event and we’ve certainly become much more agile around when we’re doing it.”

He uses another example of the US election last year, during which Focus live streamed hourly updates as well as providing additional interviews in between.

While the jury is out on its impact on 6pm bulletins, Currie is sure that Focus videos don’t have an impact on the readership of the text stories they’re attached to.

He says people are reading and watching and the text can be helpful in providing context, as well as encouraging the audience to watch the entire video.

However, he does point out their behaviour is dependent on their situation.

“For instance, if they’re at work and they can’t necessarily watch the video because the boss might be watching, they’ll read the story. Or if they’re on the bus on the way home, they might be watching the video on Facebook or on one of the social channels and referring back to the Herald site from there.”

Using Facebook as a fishing pond for audiences is part of Focus’ strategy to make sure it doesn’t undermine its own products. Currie says he thinks some publishers are relying too much on Facebook and it’s careful to not post all videos and sometimes only partial videos to pull the audience back to its own sites where NZME knows the engagement metrics and who the audience is.

And it’s proving a to be a successful strategy as Currie says there’s a good percentage of people who will watch a video on Facebook and then go into one of its sites to watch the full video or read the story.

Looking into the future, Currie sees Focus continuing to go from strength to strength as it learns more about it audience and what they want. He also says the brand will become more prominent when the new NZ Herald site is launched and hints at some exciting things to come with the Lions Tour, Americas Cup and the general election.

We’ll have to wait to see.

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