Nielsen has released its statistics for New Zealand's most-visited websites by unique audience, and the figures once again confirm New Zealand's preference for Stuff over the NZ Herald website—although the gap has narrowed substantially following Nielsen's correction of its data collection in April this year.
When compared to the nation's other major websites, NZHerald.co.nz places 11th below Wikipedia, while Stuff sits in eighth under Yahoo.
In the most recent statistics, the Herald had a unique monthly audience of 1.33 million, while Stuff sat at 1.48 million.
According to an NZME release, these results mean that the Herald now sits at its highest ever level, increasing by 45 percent on last year's online figures and giving the Herald a reach of two million unique Kiwis across print and digital each month.
Nationally, the gap between the Herald and Stuff narrowed substantially after Nielsen revealed in May that a coding error had resulted in the Herald's mobile audience being undercounted for about nine months.
"We always had a feeling that our mobile numbers were under-represented," says Brad Glading, the head of research and insights at NZME. "So, we couldn't be happier to see the results demonstrating our mobile growth more accurately."
Although this correction gave the Herald's numbers a bounce in the right direction, the online publication still lags behind its competitor by about 300,000 monthly unique browsers.
This is however not the case in Auckland, where the Herald retains its position as the leading news publication by a significant margin.
“We continue to lead the content market in Auckland and have grown 11 share points in the last 12 months following a 36 percent increase in audience,” said Sarah Kenny, the general manager of brand and communications at NZME, in a release.
The Herald's dominance in the Super City has led to some criticism that the publication is an Auckland brand rather than one that appeals to a broader audience, but Kenny countered these assertions.
“There has been a perception in the past that the Herald isn’t a national brand but these results show how wrong that perception is. We are very strong in Auckland with 33 percent more digital audience than our closest competitor, but our growth nationwide is undeniable and exactly where we want the Herald to be,” she says.
Glading said that while Auckland had always been "the Herald's stomping ground," the publication had also been growth in Christchurch and the upper South Island.
Despite NZME's dominance in Auckland, Fairfax has however not relinquished the region to its competitor. In an effort to bridge the Super City gap, Fairfax has over the last few months run an outdoor campaign around the city that features a range of topical headlines on stories that might pique readers' interest.
Sinead Boucher, group executive editor at Fairfax, says that that the campaign, which was conceptualised by creative agency Shine, provides a glimpse at "the full spectrum of stories that Stuff covers".
"When it comes to Stuff, you get everything," she says. "The campaign shows that we cover the big stories but that we also have that playfulness on the side that Stuff has become known for."
The campaign has coincided with growth of around 52,000 readers for Stuff in the Auckland market over the last three months, and this has allowed the site to close in on its competitor. Between July and September, Nielsen's stats show that the Herald registered 549,000 readers in September, down 23,000 from the previous month (this is however an improvement of 8,000 readers from July).*
But if Auckland is the stomping ground of the Herald, then the rest of the nation, particularly the South Island, belongs to Fairfax. The reason for this is because Fairfax maintains a significant regional presence thanks in large part to its community papers.
"The regional publications are so important to us in terms of Stuff's success," says Boucher. "We have 650 journalists around the country, and I've been to Gore and Napier and all the big centres in between to meet with the teams on the ground."
Boucher says that the ability of these journalists to cover stories that might not reach the mainstream media means that Stuff is able to facilitate news that's relevant to segments of New Zealand's population across the country. The Kiwi appetite for this kind of news has been reflected in the fact that regional papers continue to hold strong readership figures at a time when overall numbers continue to slide.
In addition to the strength of its journalistic team across the both islands, Boucher says that Stuff Nation continues to drive significant readership as well.
"We currently have 140,000 Stuff Nation members, many of which are contributing regularly. And the quality of those contributions is getting higher and higher."
Anecdotally, Boucher pointed out that current affairs shows often pick up Stuff Nation stories and that sometimes user-generated content matches standard journalistic articles in terms of readership numbers. She says that the authenticity of the articles resonates with the audience, in the sense that the stories published on Stuff Nation often give a personal glimpse into the life of the writer.
Interestingly, this is similar argument to that used to explain why YouTube stars are able to attract such huge audiences to their vlogs.
Given the success of Fairfax's Stuff Nation initiative, Glading was asked whether the Herald would consider introducing its own user-generated section, and he replied that "NZME is always keeping an eye on ways in which to grow its audiences". He did not reject the idea entirely, and went on to say that NZME's decision would be dictated by its audiences.
Glading pointed to NZME recent updates to the Business Herald as an example of steps being taken to ensure that readers continue to rely on the site for business insights, something which he says has always been a big focus for the Herald.
Another major focal point for both sides of the media divide has been the incorporation of video. In addition to often including video versions of its stories, NZME recently incorporated in-read video onto the Herald, which gives the publication access to an additional revenue stream.
Boucher says that video has also become paramount to her side of the divide, and she elaborates further by mentioning Fairfax's decision to conflate its photographers and videographers into a single team of 45 visual journalists.
"We already have 1.3 million views a week of our videos a week, and this continues to grow," she says.
To further consolidate its video capabalities, Fairfax has also invested in a drone, which allows journalists to gain bird's eye footage of events at a fraction of the cost that a helicopter would entail.
"We've already captured great drone footage of the Christchurch rebuild, and we look forward to continuing to explore other uses for drones. It just makes sense. For the cost of a single helicopter flight, you can buy a drone and get all the necessary training," she says.
Given the continued growth in digital, both Boucher and Glading were asked what the future held for the news juggernauts of New Zealand's media landscape.
Glading took the more reserved approach and said that "stick to its guns and get a solid understanding of what its audience wants," and added that strong engagement through social media channels would also become more important over the next few years.
In contrast, Boucher was more combative, saying that Fairfax was working on a strategy to overtake Yahoo in the near future.
*Correction: Nielsen previously provided incorrect readership data for the month of September. This has now been updated.