How Fairfax hopes to encourage a ‘broad range of debate’ through its new online platforms

Fairfax Media recently unveiled its new commercial strategy and relaunched the Brisbane Times, the first of three new digital products. Fairfax's head of product, Jess Ross, chats with Zoe Samios about the website's transformation.

When Fairfax Media said it was moving away from Facebook and would instead rely on improved technology and design to drive readers directly to its sites, it was a bold decision.

The company’s annual results, which came out a day prior, indicated a revenue fall 5.3% to $1.732b, and Australian Metro Media’s revenue decline of 9%, to $522.2m.

However, at the time, Matt Rowley, Fairfax Metro Media’s chief revenue officer, was confident in the company’s new digital products.

Two weeks later, the company launched its first refreshed website, The Brisbane Times, with a new design aiming to deliver “faster, clear, and more immersive experiences” across all platforms.

Following the launch, Jess Ross, chief product officer at Fairfax Media tells Mumbrella the key idea was to “strip back” the digital news experience, allow the news agenda to “shine,” and deliver a platform with features which could encourage strong debate.

Ross: You’ve got to understand why people are buying your product

The company will later revamp its Sydney and Melbourne products.

“I spent almost 10 years working for places like Choice and Which in the UK, which are effectively not for profits that are entirely reliant on consumer subscriptions for their funding,” Ross tells Mumbrella.

“You’ve got to understand why people are buying your product and not what they’re buying.

“The challenge at Fairfax is really not that different at the end of the day at all. Our heritage and our legacy, it’s one of trust, it’s one of quality reporting.

The new website, which includes revamped fonts, more white space, reduced advertising banners, an up-voting feature, and a shift of the comment thread and main page offerings, came from four key themes: clarity, inspiration and escape, mastery, and belonging.

The new website design

“We spent a lot of time trying to understand those key motivations to underpin the changes that we wanted to make, and it really was a ground-up rebuild. We didn’t start with anything that we had to retain really,” she says.

“We did a huge piece of a qualitative interview process where we sat down in people’s homes, spent a good hour and a half talking to people about their media consumption.

“It was a really robust qualitative sample of people across New South Wales and Victoria, and really broad range of demographic and different kind of interests etc, different news behaviours.”

Ross says while the new website is “not designed to be everything”, she is hoping it will maintain people’s attention.

“It’s designed to help you understand that those things are important and it gives you a sense of completion, because you can get to the end of it really quickly, and I think in our rush for clicks and engagement, we forget that actually people get a lot of value out of just scanning the front page of a newspaper,” she says.

While the site mainly delivers news, she says, it also now has a “serendipity zone” for content which is a bit lighter.

However, one of the website’s main focuses will be mastery – with Ross aiming to reimport “utility” back into newspapers.

“It’s all about helping you to make better decisions in your life or giving you a sense of understanding an issue properly,” she says.

“That is something that I think has fallen away over a number of years as newspapers have become stripped of some of their utility.

“If there’s one key motivation or underlying reason that people get value out of news is that sense of connection that the news brings you.

“It’s definitely an area that I think we’ve got a lot more work to do in this space, but the ways that we’ve touched on for the moment in terms of bringing that to the fore really come through in the commenting functionality that we’ve implemented on the Brisbane Times.”

The commenting functionality now sits further up the page on the side of an article, so as not to divorce the comments from the reading experience. Users must provide an email address to leave a comment, however there is no fee.

The new comment thread is on the side of articles

An up-voting piece of functionality – similar to Facebook’s likes – has also been introduced.

“The commenting functionality that we’ve implemented is The Coral Project, which is an open source piece of technology that’s being worked on by Mozilla and the New York Times and Washington Post. We’ve been really connected with the work that’s going on in that space in the US.

“We want to encourage a really broad range of debate,” she says on reasons for the new feature. “We want to have a broad church, so for us asking people to respect a comment really fits with our remit as a media organisation and as it happens it also succeeded.

“It’s an experiment for us. We’re going to see how it goes, and it’s one of the ways that we’re exploring how we can drive that sense of belonging in our membership really.”

Fairfax’s decisions on fonts has also been about offering an “enhanced experience” and getting readers out of their newsfeed.

“We were very, very conscious of our brand and wanting to enhance our quality position in the market, so one of the things that was really important was to choose a font that we could really invest in that quality positioning, and own from a brand perspective,” Ross says.

“Abril Titling is the headline font that we have chosen. It’s a contemporary take on a classic news face. It’s web-friendly. It also happens to be quite print-like, very easy to read.”

“We’re looking to make that better than the thing that you get on Apple News or wherever you might be hanging at the moment,” she adds.

“The more that we can create an engaged, habitual user base, the more that we can get our users to log in when they come and visit and authenticate with us, the more that we’ll be able to really maximise our commercial potential.”

For Ross, the website isn’t just about creating more readers, to broaden scale for advertisers.

“If you’re an advertiser, what you really want is a quality prospect, I guess, someone who is likely to be in the market for what you’re selling, and you want to be able to serve your message to them at a point where they will give it consideration.

“That’s very much what we’re trying to do here is to create the conditions for that great commercial experience as well, and the commercial results that advertisers really need to see.”

While customers have been a primary focus for the revamped digital sites, Fairfax’s editorial team have a fundamental part of the process.

Fairfax’s editorial teams have been a key part of the redesign process

She says the company is helping the newsrooms engage with their users, and deliver content “people really want to see.”

“We have been in constant collaboration with the newsroom throughout this process. I really view the work that we do here at Fairfax as a hybrid between technology and journalism,” she says.

“That’s the product that ends up being consumed by the end user is a blend of both of those things, so you can’t do one without the other at all.”

For Ross, one of the biggest evaluations she made in the news experience currently in market is the cost of the click, which is causing a “friction point”, making consumers hesitate on what to read.

“Once somebody arrives it’s the biggest barrier that stops them getting a high degree of consumption in because they’re continually looking for something to read.

“If they’re unsure about a headline or they’re not sure what they’re going to get out of their click at the end of the day, they hover and they hesitate, and that doubt isn’t conducive to that satisfying experience, so we’ve been working with the newsroom quite closely on shaping of headlines,” she tells Mumbrella.

“They know that our goals are around driving better content discoverability. We want to be really clear about what people are getting, so we used large format images that help people understand what the story is about, longer headlines.”

Days after The Brisbane Times relaunched, so did News Corp’s Daily Telegraph, promoting itself as a “faster, cleaner, easy-to-navigate” website.

Ross says while she wasn’t surprised other media organisations were refreshing their news offering, Fairfax remains focused on “distinctive”, “differentiated” experiences.

“My view on this is that what you get when you’re looking at the Brisbane Times is not the same,” she says.

“We’re not trying to create a really dense aggregation of content, if that makes sense. We’re not trying to give you everything in one go, if that makes sense, and that really comes back to the focus on those underlying user needs, the reasons that they come to us.

“We want to make sure that each one of them in turn is being addressed by a different part of the site, particularly the home page which has been designed for our loyal user base, and I want to teach people.”

For Ross, the new product design is “incredibly important” in news media.

“Certainly news has a high degree of substitutability. People can go to multiple different sources for news and information, and we have to give people a good reason to come to us, and I think that’s the role that product has to play here,” she says.

“We’re really just incredibly determined to deliver on the promise of that leadership really. We’re focused on innovating, and innovating the news experience, because newspapers have taken 200 years or longer to get to a point where they have this perfect news consumption experience from a lot of people’s perspective.

“We’re only at the beginning of that journey really, from a digital perspective, but we know we need to do work to evolve that. This is a foundational platform.”


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