Fairfax’s Campbell Mitchell on evolving journalism, news media’s perception problem and the commercialisation of audiences—UPDATED

Earlier this week, Radio New Zealand broke the story that around 70 Fairfax sub-editing jobs, predominantly in the Wellington office, were on the line following a proposal from the media company to move sub-editing work back to third-party provider Pagemasters having taken that work off Pagemasters around two years ago.

While the sub-editing services provided by these staff members was predominantly for Australian papers, attention again turned to the demise in the quality journalism across the world. 

This is a topic that has been afforded copious column inches both here and in international media, and it’s usually accompanied by— what some might say is misplaced—nostalgia for how things once were.

Of course, journalism has always come under scrutiny—and this is to be expected in an industry that supposedly trades on telling the truth.

But from a marketing perspective, media companies producing news are struggling with what could, in an ironic twist, be described as a major PR problem. 

Every time an article questions the quality of what Fairfax produces, it places a question mark over the credibility of the organisation, not only as a news provider but also as a partner for clients looking to reach an audience.

Though this could be seen as a bit of a stretch, the onslaught of negative commentary about the state of news media leaves media organisations in a very similar position (once again, from a marketing perspective) to fast food companies that frequently find themselves targeted in reports on the obesity epidemic, the harmfulness of sugar or the supposed contents of their meals.

In every other industry, the responsibility of addressing such PR issues rests with the marketing and comms teams—and it’s no different in news media. 

Fairfax’s Campbell Mitchell, who was recently promoted to chief marketing officer after joining as marketing director in 2013, would not comment on the editorial changes happening at Fairfax and referred us to the Australian arm of the business for comment (StopPress contacted Brad Hutch, director of communications in Australia, but we are yet to receive a response)*.  

However, Mitchell was willing to talk about the commercial side of the business, and admitted that news media certainly does have an image that isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s happening at in the business. 

“In reality, more people than ever before are consuming our news. That’s a fact. That number is 2.7 million New Zealanders every day. In reality, Stuff is now number three behind Google and Facebook. In reality, more than 1.1 million New Zealanders read a daily newspaper. We’ve got 300,000 paper subscribers who get our papers in their letterbox every day. And in some of our markets [in the South Island], we’re making more money than we did last year.”

At a time when some major advertisers are pulling out of print advertising because they no longer see it as an effective means to connect with audiences—and when large publishers like The Independent are also pulling out of print and going digital only—perspectives can and often do play an important role in determining where money ends up.

But Mitchell’s challenges don’t end here. Alongside convincing clients that what Fairfax is selling is still working, he also grapples with the perception that the overall quality of the product Fairfax puts out is reducing. 

These days, it isn’t difficult to find snarky comments online pointing out the typos and headline errors that slip through onto the nation’s mainstream news sites. And each of these observations adds to the narrative that news publishing is inferior to what came before.

Mitchell believes this overlooks the differences between print—which was predominant in previous generations—and the online publishing we see today.

“It is challenging, but there is an insatiable appetite for people to get their news fast. Our job is to get it to them first. That is a priority. After that, we’ll go back [and flesh it out]. Often what people do is see a story on Stuff and they go ‘it’s short, it doesn’t have much detail, and it hasn’t spoken to both sides’. But it’s first. And the job then is for us to build that story and evolve it, and add depth to it.”

Mitchell uses the example of Fairfax’s recent reportage on the Christchurch Earthquake as an example of the modern news experience. 

“On Sunday, we had 1.1 million unique users on Stuff. It was our biggest audience ever. A big, serious, news event happened in New Zealand, and Kiwis came to Stuff, because they knew they could. The content in the press the next day was six pages, immersive, it featured graphics and so on, and that played a different role than the news that was published at 1.30pm for an earthquake that happened at 1.15pm. And that doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different.” 

Comparing a story published 15 minutes after a breaking news event to one that has gone through the full sub-editing and final check process associated with the print version does seem somewhat unfair, but there are also valid concerns that modern news publishers are in a race to the bottom as they pursue scale by running clickbait in lieu of serious journalism. The click is addictive and it’s something many believe is changing the news values of publishers, with short, popular posts (often sourced from social media) gaining prominence over gruntier stories. But Mitchell explains that Fairfax is “an audience company” and its job is to provide content that will keep readers engaged. And while this does certainly include breaking news stories, it also means providing lighter content from time to time. 

Reading fluff content isn’t a new phenomenon, however. As far back as 1928, research conducted by George Gallup found that readers were drawn to the frivolous (even though they claimed to read the serious stuff). And the tabloid ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’ model was where Rupert Murdoch got his start.   

In this context, Mitchell says a dogmatic commitment to hardcore news simply isn’t financially viable, pointing to the example of The Guardian, which is expected to report losses to the tune of £50 million in March this year and is getting set to reduce its headcount by around 20 percent, largely because digital revenue isn’t growing fast enough. 

Mitchell says the changes Fairfax has been introducing are designed to ensure the business is able to monetise its audiences effectively, so that it remains a sustainable business. 

“We have New Zealand’s biggest newsroom. We have more journalists than any other company, and our commitment is to create a best-practice, modern newsroom that’s actually equipped to deal with consumer change and technology innovation. We’re a different newsroom than we were six months ago, and we’re going to continue to evolve.”

This evolution has certainly seen a few casualties along the way, the most recent of which were a series of magazines that have been sold off to the editors—which leads to the question: are magazines not part of Fairfax’s plans? 

“Magazines play a part,” Mitchell responds. “But a big part of my job is to help diversify the product and service offering Fairfax provides. And sometimes, to grow in some areas, you need to trim in others.”

Mitchell sees effective—and profitable magazines—as going beyond the page and providing a dedicated community with more than just an immersive reading experience. This, of course, includes a strong online voice, but real-life experiences also play an important role. 

House and Garden is an amazingly successful magazine, and in two weeks it triggers off a whole event called the House and Garden Tours. So more than 5,000 people will pay an amount of money to participate in an experience that’s only enabled because of House and Garden.

Another example Mitchell points to is the Dom Post, which annually advertises and runs a 12-day rail tour

“We have 80 people who spend the best part of $5,000 to go on a 12-day rail tour.”

What these examples show is that while it’s becoming more and more difficult to sell full-page ads or double-page spreads in magazines or newspapers, media companies are developing a range of new ways to sell their audiences to brands.

The problem, however, is that such experiences and their corresponding native executions are sold on the credibility of the publications in the media company’s portfolio. And with this credibility regularly being questioned, it certainly does create a challenge Mitchell and his counterparts at other media companies will continue grappling with for some time.  

*Update: Text has been inserted after publication to reflect that Mitchell did not comment on Fairfax’s recent proposal. This interview was scheduled before news of the proposal broke.

Update 2: A Fairfax spokesperson sent through the following response to our questions:

“We have started consultation with the approximately 70 full-time equivalent staff in New Zealand that would be affected by a proposal to move editorial production work they perform for Australian metro mastheads to a third-party provider, Pagemasters, which would operate from both New Zealand and Australia. 

“The proposed new arrangements would provide Fairfax additional flexibility and savings. 

​”​Consultation with staff is ongoing.

“We are confident that Pagemasters will continue to support our quality journalism and the Australian metro newsrooms as they take shape for the future.​”​

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