‘A few sleepless nights’: news.com.au’s long road back to number one

In this candid interview, news.com.au editor-in-chief Lisa Muxworthy talks about her almost three-year fight to reclaim one of the most important standings in the modern media landscape - and how it sometimes kept her up at night.

The last thing any editor wants is for their publication to lose its first-place audience ranking, but in hindsight, news.com.au editor-in-chief Lisa Muxworthy thinks it might’ve been a blessing in disguise.

A lot of things changed in April 2020 thanks to a little thing called Covid, which saw borders slammed shut, workplaces cleared out, and millions forced inside their homes.

It was also the month news.com.au tumbled from its perch as Australia’s most-read news website to second most-read, after a staggering four years in top spot, non-stop.

news.com.au editor-in-chief Lisa Muxworthy.

Muxworthy, who was then editor, describes it now in her trademark measured fashion as “an interesting time”.

“It was an unprecedented period for online journalism, when overnight, everybody wanted to know absolutely everything that they could and turned to digital news for in-the-moment coverage,” she recalled.

“Everyone’s numbers went up. It shook up the rankings. We had been number one for so long, unbroken. And then, we weren’t.”

It would be almost three years until news.com.au clawed its way back.

‘A tough road back’

The first month out of top spot was a shock. The second, third and fourth sparked a little bit of panic. After that..? Plenty of soul-searching.

But never any anger or resentment, Muxworthy said.

“I do believe it’s good to have competitors. I think losing our number one spot for that period of time wasn’t a bad thing. You’ve got to be able to look critically at yourself and try to be better, always.

“You’re not challenged to do that if you’re always at the top.”

When she was appointed editor-in-chief at the very end of 2020, Muxworthy faced some lofty expectations from inside News Corp Australia – the biggest being reclaiming number one from the ABC, which continued to dominate with its authoritative saturation Covid coverage.

“It was definitely a tough road,” she recalled. “Did it keep me up at night? From time-to-time, sure. But really, I’m probably thinking about news.com.au 24-7 anyway.

“It was a tough time. We had to ask ourselves some serious questions. Are we telling the stories people want to read? Are we in the right places, in terms of where people are consuming news? Where do we need to put our focus? What do we need to change?

“It made us look at what we could do differently and where the opportunities are.”

Muxworthy bedded in a senior leadership team, appointing Oliver Murray as editor and Kerry Warren as sections editor, expanded the remit of Eleni Paneras to head of social, video and off-platform strategy, and hired a head of audience, Jai Bednall.

“Being editor-in-chief, obviously my role involves many things – I’m on [News Corp’s] Editorial Board, I’m on the steering committee of the Digital News Academy, I’m pulled in many different directions. Having a strong leadership team, each of them with a clear focus, is invaluable.

“Their passion for the brand equals mine. They’re just as passionate about us being not just number one in terms of the numbers but being the best that we can be.”

There were evaluations and overhauls of strategies covering search, social, video and more, and a dedicated play from Muxworthy for the elusive Generation Z audience.

It involved a move to TikTok, as one might expect, but also more than that – the appointment of a youth editor tasked with telling the stories young people want, as well as where and when they want them.

“We’ve seen incredible growth in our Gen Z and Millennial audiences. It’s the biggest growth area we’ve had over the past couple of years, and it’s not just from TikTok, although we have 1.4 million followers there.

“The strategy is based on focusing on where younger Australians are consuming news, and how they’re consuming it, and meeting them there.”

news.com.au editor Oliver Murray is at the top of Muxworthy’s senior leadership team.

‘The conversation’ is key

But what sets news.com.au apart from its competitors, and what helped it reclaim top spot when the Covid craziness passed, is its content offering, she said.

“It’s a real mix, and I’m proud of the mix.

“You can come to us for breaking news, in-depth analysis, the latest from Canberra, a view of what’s happening across the globe, and while you’re here check out red carpet coverage, gossip about what was on TV last night, sports highlights… we have it all.

“We’re not ashamed of who we are. We’re a mass market news website. We write for 13 million Australians. So, we’re not precious. The important thing is to do it well.”

Muxworthy has spoken in the past about the importance of ‘the conversation’ that news.com.au taps into or creates, and it’s a philosophy she said guides the newsroom.

“If there’s a moment that everyone is talking about, that’s where we want to be, at the heart of those conversations. If someone sees something on our site and thinks, ‘I was just talking about that’ or ‘I was just thinking that too’, then we’ve succeeded.”

The latest Ipsos iris report showed news.com.au reached 12.71 million people in April – six in 10 online Australians. It’s 1.7 million more people than its nearest competitor, the ABC, in second spot.

If the number one trend is bedded in now – April’s result was the fourth win in a row on the new endorsed industry measurement – then the monthly report will quickly become boring reading.

But for Muxworthy, there’s a figure within it that few are paying attention to.

“For me, the interesting part of the numbers now is the time people are spending on our site. For us, per person, it’s almost half an hour. That’s huge.

“It’s one thing to get Australians to come to you, it’s another thing entirely to keep them engaged for so long. They’re making news.com.au a daily habit.”

Disclaimer – the journalist is a former employee of news.com.au.


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