Up Country: Hawke’s Bay Today’s Andrew Austin on local pride, beating the internet and the role of branded content

In conjunction with News Works, the Up Country series talks with some of New Zealand’s top regional newspaper editors about the performance of their titles in print and online, the role local news plays in regional communities, where they see the industry going and why advertisers should stick with them. Next up, Andrew Austin, editor of Hawke’s Bay Today 

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How important is Hawke’s Bay Today to the region—and the region’s businesses?

It’s very important because it is the biggest source of local news. People know to turn to us, be it in print or via hawkesbaytoday.co.nz for the news [as part of the NZME network, its content also appears on nzherald.co.nz]. Advertisers also know that if they want their product sold, they need to use us. There is a sense of ownership of the paper and we get feedback that locals are proud of their paper.

It’s a tough market for newspapers at the moment, both here and around the world. But Hawke’s Bay Today has held steady in terms of circulation. What do you put that down to?

We focus on local issues and support local events. We make sure that we are involved in all the big events in the region and give them significant coverage. We are actively involved in the community. Good examples of this were when we recently held two public meetings, one on the controversial plan to build a dam in Central Hawke’s Bay and the other on the amalgamation of local councils. We had almost 700 people at each of the events. This shows the power of the press and the fact that people turn to us to be informed. We also have built up a reputation of tackling the important issues and being an advocate for our readers. People know they can depend on us for their news, to fight their battles and to provide the analysis for them. We also engage and interact with our readers on a daily basis. Personally, I try to get to as many functions and speaking engagements as possible and also get a lot of feedback from readers.

Do you feel like this ‘hyperlocal’ approach is coming back into vogue as news becomes increasingly commoditised? And does this put regional newspapers like Hawke’s Bay Today in a better position than some of the larger metros?

I think the only way for a regional newspaper to thrive is to keep it local. We cannot compete with the internet when it comes to international news, but we can cover our patch better than anyone else. This puts us in an incredible position. On any given day, there is more current information about Hawke’s Bay in one edition of Hawke’s Bay Today than one could find anyway on the internet.

Do you think there’s a misperception in the market about the viability of regional newspapers and the role they play in the community? Why should advertisers stick with them? 

I don’t think there is a misperception in the market about our viability. Advertisers know that they have an opportunity to reach a large proportion of the Hawke’s Bay community through us. They should stick with us because it works for them.

Give us an example of a time when an advertiser benefitted from being in your paper?

This happens frequently, with real estate agents telling us that houses listed in our paper sell well. Our motoring advertisers often tell us that when they do a sales special with us, the vehicles sell well. We also are promoters and sponsors for local organisations like our local rugby union. Last year we promoted an All Blacks test match being held in Napier and tickets sold fast. The union put this down to us helping them market the game through our paper.

With the rise of branded content and native advertising, there’s been plenty of talk about the boundaries between editorial and sales blurring. What’s your view on that? Has it become a necessary evil? 

I don’t think it is a necessary evil, but rather the logical step for newspapers to take. These days editors have to be more commercial in their thinking and unlike days gone by, cannot sit in their ivory towers and leave the business side of the newspaper to advertising and the general manager. It is possible to venture down this road without selling one’s soul. The key is to remain a trustworthy news source and to be impartial in all we report, but at the end of the day we are still a business.  

Which stories—or series of stories—stick out as the best examples of what Hawke’s Bay Today does best?

Covering the big local issues comprehensively is what we do best. We have recently had a referendum in Hawke’s Bay on the amalgamation of our five local councils – the proposal was defeated. Hawke’s Bay Today covered this extensively with news, analysis and opinion. We rounded it all off with a special amalgamation edition the morning after the result. We have received positive feedback for our work.

How would you characterise your typical reader? And do you think there are some inaccurate stereotypes about the type of people who live in the regions? 

Our typical reader of the print newspaper is older (55+), female and middle class. Online our readership is much younger and more diverse.

The young’uns are increasingly getting their information from social media and aren’t too keen on paying for news. How do you engage with that section of the community?

We engage with them on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We have just over 3,000 followers on Twitter and have 14,759 likes on Facebook. This is a significant number of people. Some stories that we put on Facebook can reach up to 30-40,000 people, which indicates our readers are sharing our stories with their friends. We have feedback on Facebook and Twitter from our readers and the demographic is much younger than our print readership. There is not much cross over between the two mediums. A large proportion of our digital readership access our products via mobile phone, which also indicates a younger market.

You became a morning paper in 2012 and a compact in 2013. How did readers and advertisers respond to that?

Our advertisers responded very well to both changes. There was some getting used to the change in advert sizes, but because we had communicated both changes in advance, they were happy. Some of our readers took some time to get used to the change to morning newspaper, but for us it was a non-negotiable because afternoon newspapers have largely become redundant because the news is old while it is being printed. With a morning newspaper, we are able to set the agenda by publishing in the morning and then follow up the stories online during the day. Our readers have since embraced the morning paper. The move to compact was very well received with many readers saying it made the paper much easier to read. We often get asked when our Saturday paper, which is still broadsheet, will become a compact. However, advertisers prefer that paper as a broadsheet so they can market their weekend specials across two pages.

What is your vision for the newspaper and website? What will it look like in five years?

Most newspapers have accepted that they have to embrace the move to the digital age and we are no different. I believe our newspaper will still be a vibrant part of our community and we will still be printing a paper daily. However, I do believe that our online content will get even stronger with more updates during the day and more video content.

Give us your most impressive statistic about Hawke’s Bay and/or Hawke’s Bay Today?

We are the second largest regional newspaper in New Zealand after the Southland Times and we are rapidly closing that gap, so probably will be the largest before too long. According to different surveys we have a readership between 50,000 and 60,000. 

  • This story is part of a content partnership with News Works.

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