Features

How West Australian Newspapers plans to play on the national stage

Two months ago, Anthony De Ceglie was appointed senior editor for West Australian Newspapers. On a call from Canberra, De Ceglie discusses his plans to launch a paywall, building out the regional proposition and tweaking a long-standing print product.

Anthony De Ceglie always said he would return to Western Australia if the opportunity to edit the daily paper presented itself.

Now, after almost three years at The Daily Telegraph, that’s where he finds himself: in an office an almost five hour flight away from his former Holt St headquarters, to take up a role bigger than he could have imagined.

De Ceglie was appointed to the helm of West Australian Newspapers in December

A number of years at the formerly News Corp-owned Sunday Times and perthnow.com.au, a stint in New York and later The Daily Telegraph eventually brought the Fremantle-born editor back home, to take on the role of senior editor across all of the West Australian Newspapers brands. “I feel like I have all the expertise I need to be able to do this,” he tells me.

Two months have passed since De Ceglie was named editor, and he now leads a news room of approximately 260, bolstered with expertise from his mentors, Courier-Mail editor, Sam Weir, and The Australian’s editor-in-chief, Chris Dore. But unlike other titles, De Ceglie’s role goes beyond one paper or one print edition: it’s the leadership of all of Seven West Media’s news titles, The West Australian, The Sunday Times, perthnow.com.au as well as 19 regional publications. There have been no redundancies since his appointment.

At the time of his appointment, Kerry Stokes, Seven West Media chairman, said De Ceglie’s task was “simple”: “to lead our talented teams in creating the most compelling, agenda-setting, journalism across our world-class publications, helping inform the communities we serve.”

Simple? Perhaps. Or perhaps not, when coupled with the task of creating a united seven-day newsroom and building a paywall for online platform, thewest.com.au.

De Ceglie, who recently won The Walkley Award in the ‘Headline, Caption or Hook’ category for his work on the Barnaby Joyce ‘Bundle of Joyce’ story, has had a number of priorities since landing the gig back in Perth. These include tweaking The West Australian print edition, building the prominence of regional news, navigating a newsroom shared by broadcaster Seven, balancing two very different digital platforms as well as a content-sharing relationship with his former business, News Corp.

But like any passionate newspaper editor, one of his first priorities was the print edition of The West Australian, which had, until his time, been run under the same editorship for almost a decade.

“The first thing was the aesthetics of the paper, which look quite different,” he says. “I’m very big on aesthetics – on the look and feel of the paper, and making sure it’s fresh.

“I’m a big advocate for light and shade in the newspaper and it needs to be more than just crime and politics.” De Ceglie has an attention to detail and philosophy which he credits to his former editor, Dore.

“Dorey and I have always had this theory that a page one has to be timeless. A truly good page one is so timeless that even if you’ve woken up in the morning, heard it on TV news, turned on the radio, you are walking past the front page or read it online, you still stop, because the presentation is so unique and the design is so timeless that you are compelled to look at it,” he says.

He runs me through some of the specifics: an opinion page for page 13, movement of the ‘world’ section to an earlier part of the paper, and the introduction of a page two column, The Ferret.

“I want to put out a product that’s better than The Daily Telegraph and I want to put out a product that’s better than The Oz [Australian],” he adds. “I really want The West to be up there with the brands that people go ‘okay, that’s a really strong brand.’”

The West Australian has one of the highest penetration rates of any paper in Australia, with around eight in 10 West Australians reading it on any given day, according to De Ceglie. He is proud of running the biggest title at the helm, but one of the many reasons is because he is boosting its support for regional journalism. His passion can be attributed to his time with the Collie Mail, where he was trained as a cadet, before later joining the Mandurah Mail. De Ceglie recently appointed a regional chief of staff in his Perth newsroom, who attends the two news meetings and pitches regional stories. He sees it as a way to engage his “army of regional reporters”.

“One of the biggest things I’ve done is really re-embrace our regional papers,” he says. “There was quite a disconnect between what our regional papers were doing and what our metro papers were up to, and just re-invigorating them.

“In WA at least, we are talking about really respected brands. The Albany Advertiser is the second oldest paper in the state, the Kalgoorlie Miner is a daily newspaper, the Geraldton Guardian, they are really part of the community. It makes sense we would tap into them.”

One of the benefits De Ceglie sees in regional journalism is how hyper-local news can build subscriptions. “As I was leaving News Corp we were talking about putting reporters into regional areas where we didn’t have a community paper, because what we found was that regional journalism sells subscriptions,” he adds. “For me, it will be about how do I mobilise my regional army of reporters to build subscriptions. When you write something that is hyper-local, at the very least you know that the mum, dad, family and friends will buy a subscription.”

Like any traditional or legacy media ‘brand’, the focus can no longer solely be print, no matter its value or how many people consume it. De Ceglie sees his competitors as anyone who can attract the attention of a consumer be it Facebook or Netflix, and also speaks to the challenge of having enough time to consume content. West Australian Newspapers are two prominent online platform, which compete for eyeballs online.

One of De Ceglie’s biggest challenges for the year is balancing the content between the two: thewest.com.au, a website which will be put behind a paywall, and PerthNow, the “funky young cousin”.

“Online news – you are either making money off subscriptions or you are making money off display advertising, and display advertising really only works on those young, funky websites, where people can target younger audiences,” he says. “There is the potential we can have a win, win, where perthnow.com.au fully embraces what we know advertisers want, and The West becomes a destination for subscription journalism.

“It’ll be fun exploring it. We are in a unique situation where we can maybe have the best of both worlds. If it works, it will be amazing. And we need to fully embrace how we use 7news to help both of those sites out, how to use our radio assets. Those newspapers have a long, long way to go still, in how they interact with the websites.”

The West Australian Newspapers newsroom is made up of a number of brands and mediums: a daily newspaper, a Sunday paper, regional mastheads, the news websites, Channel Seven News, and a small radio station, Red FM. Seven works on a different product, while PerthNow and The West have their own producers, but the content comes from the same reporters writing for the daily paper and the Sunday paper. It’s incredibly unique, he says, and a way to build cross-platform content.

He provides the example of an Australian Day weekend listicle they ran in the paper, which featured every best Australian song of the year since the ’60s. They did a preview on Seven’s Today Tonight, and while Red FM did a podcast. It’s content like this which De Ceglie believes can help build out a story.

Part of the Great Australian Songs listicle

But outside of working cross-platform, there is also the content sharing agreement with News Corp, which predates De Ceglie’s time. West Australian Newspapers pays for the agreement, which allows the paper to use any News Corp content in its print editions. Until De Ceglie implements a paywall, the publisher cannot use News Corp content online.

But it is still helpful for De Ceglie, given his 10 years with News Corp. He has seen the data behind content at The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, which gives him a better idea of what to put into his own print editions.

“It will really come in handy when we put The West behind a paywall, so at the moment, although we have access to the content in print, we can’t use it unless it’s behind a paywall online,” he adds.

De Ceglie anticipates his major task – creating a paywall or thewest.com.au – will occur mid year, in line with a major murder case in Perth. But the timing of the paywall is interesting. Other digital publications, in particular youth publishers, have struggled in recent weeks, ridden with redundancies and cost cuts. He’s not concerned with the challenges those publishers have faced, arguing the content is “unique” and “targeted”. But De Ceglie knows his biggest challenge will be educating the audience so they understand why content can no longer be free.

“Putting The West behind a paywall for the first time and getting that to work, and properly communicating to the audience why we are doing it and why it’s the future of journalism, why we need their support and why the money is worth it [is the biggest challenge],” he says.

“We have a really big, big murder case over here in the middle of the year – the Claremont serial killer trial.

“We know true crime is such a big driver of subscriptions and such a big driver of eyeballs and audiences that I really want to have us behind the paywall before them, so we can explain to our readers why that journalism is actually worth their money, why the quality of it is worth their money.

“I really believe that at the end of the day the one thing we know is that news works, and that people devour news. They are probably devouring more news than they ever have, it’s just about how we get that news to them and convince them it is worth paying for.”

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