Looking local: How News Corp is targeting regional areas with digital-only mastheads

Over the past few months, News Local has launched five digital-only mastheads, four of which are in regions the publisher previously wasn’t present in. Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston sat down with News Local publisher John McGourty to discuss the strategy and find out which regions are next.

Earlier this year Eliza Barr achieved what many journalists try to avoid. Through no fault of her own, she became the headline. Barr was attending a press conference given by then-senator, Fraser Anning. During the event, Barr’s line of questioning was opposed by Anning, and his followers who were watching. One of those followers took it upon themselves to attack Barr.

Eliza Barr of the St George Shire Standard

The event distracted from a more important, and arguably more interesting, fact about Barr. She’s the launch reporter for the St George Shire Standard, News Corp’s first foray into digital-only local journalism. Barr, who was born and raised in the Shire, has been the test for what’s proven to be a successful model for the publisher, and her learnings from the experience have already been propelled into another four mastheads, with more to follow.

News Local currently comprises of 23 mastheads, five of which are digital-only. The digital-only mastheads are manned by a single reporter who lives and breathes the local area the masthead is based in. Like Barr, they’re locals themselves, who have interests and contacts in the area they represent. Working as one-man-bands, they cover the information relevant to that area, including court reporting, property and real estate news, business stories and anything else people in the town would want to read about.

Those stories are placed behind a paywall, one shared with The Daily Telegraph, and act as a localised shopfront for the national News Corp content. So if a consumer is a News Local reader in Wollongong, they pay their subscription and receive both the content relevant to their local area and the wider national content produced by the Telegraph journalists.

“Last year we decided to test the market to see what would happen if we were launching a new local product today, would it necessarily need a print product? St George has been a long-time gap in the market for us, Nine have had the area for a very long time with the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader,” says News Local publisher John McGourty.

“We wanted a staff reporter who had been born and raised in the Shire, and at that point she was travelling across to work on one of our other products because there wasn’t a local product for her to work on, so I offered her the chance to work on a product for her area and she jumped at it.”

The St George Shire Standard launched in September 2018, and by Christmas McGourty realised they were onto a good thing. The pickup was quicker than anticipated, and while the number was small compared to national figures, it was building at a significant speed.

Launching into other markets

Some testing was done on the original model before it was launched into Wollongong with The Illawarra Star. Local reporter Madeline Crittenden was hired and McGourty was keen to see if the model would work in a more competitive market.

Madeline Crittenden of The Illawarra Star

“When we launched in Wollongong, it was a much more competitive market, because you’ve got the Illawarra Mercury, local radio and local TV. Again, we recruited someone who was born and raised in the area, went to university there, all her friendship groups are in the Wollongong area. That’s been going for about two months now, and in that time it’s mirrored exactly what we saw in St George in terms of growth.”

The model is focused around the idea that people want hyper-local journalism, but are more likely to pay for it when there’s the backing of a national brand which they also have access to. A consumer might not pay for local news, or might not pay for a Daily Telegraph subscription, but they will pay for both. It sweetens the deal and builds subscriptions, something News Corp has been very clear about focusing on. Plus, it’s an incredibly agile and cost-effective model. One reporter, no newsroom, a site which just needs to be branded to a new masthead and social media presence which also needs to be branded.

McGourty compares it to a department store. The Illawarra Star or the St George Shire Standard is the enticing window display which gets you in. You’re then able to stick with the stuff that brought you into the store, or you can peruse the whole offering, in this case, The Daily Telegraph. It’s a unique proposition, something Nine, the only other media company in the country which would have the capabilities of offering such a model, doesn’t provide with its local subscriptions, the publisher says.

“The content will be crime, court cases, planning, development, transport, health, schools, local sport – the kind of stuff that isn’t senior level but stories like women’s AFL growing at a faster rate in an area than men’s AFL, the kind of content you’d expect to see in your local paper. Stories that resonate with people,” says McGourty.

“After years of globalisation, we’ve now got to a point where people are actually after trusted local content and there’s nothing more trusted than community news. In a world where people are really reconsidering what trust means in the media, community news is the most trusted source.”

The push for regional

It’s an interesting time for News Corp to be focusing on regional media, given Nine has just sold its own regional assets to Antony Catalano and Thorney Investment Group, and WIN has announced the closure of regional newsrooms. Aside from creating a conversation about what this means for those living in regional areas and their access to local news, it’s also created a conversation around whether a regional model is a commercially viable one.

“I think Nine, or Fairfax, didn’t quite know what to do with its local and regional titles. It will be interesting to watch what Antony Catalano does with it, because that’s his whole product now. Regional and community news is what he’s got, so that’s the business. I think at a Fairfax level, when they bought the Rural Press they didn’t quite know what to do with it. For Catalano, he’s got an opportunity there.”

News Local will actually go up against Australian Community Media in Canberra, another area its opened a digital-only platform. The Canberra Star will be in direct competition with the newly-launched Canberra Times.

Kate Christian of The Canberra Star

The difference will be in the content, says McGourty.

“The Canberra Star will unabashedly not touch anything from federal parliament. That’s already covered perfectly by The Australian and The Daily Telegraph – all the metro papers. It’s not what people want to read about at a local level.”

With Nine and News Corp both focusing on a subscription-based model going forward there needs to be more education for consumers. Paywall content began to hit Australia in mainstream media titles around a decade ago, but with the introduction of other subscription services in consumers’ lives – from Netflix to Spotify – it’s becoming easier for news to be seen as a commodity which needs to be paid for.

The secret is in the content, providing something that brings the sort of value consumers are happy to put a price on. Data mining helps, being able to deliver stories consumers want to read. News Corp uses platforms like Verity which provide more insight and allows it to track what readers are looking for.

“We’ve pivoted towards an audience-first conversation. We know based on feedback online what types of stories will either encourage people to subscribe, or once they’re a subscriber we know what types of stories they want to read. As an audience-first business we write more of those stories. It’s a lot less guesswork.”

Moving away from print

One of the other digital-only mastheads News Local is currently operating is Central Sydney. That title was formerly a print publication which has been rolled into a digital-only offering with a single journalist, similar to the others. As for the other print mastheads under the News Local brand, it isn’t a given that they’ll go down the same path. Some of them are still viable print options, but in the case of the Central Sydney the subscribers have grown significantly since it moved to digital-only and the publication was able to better focus its content, says McGourty.

Heath Parkes-Hupton of Central Sydney

By the end of July, News Local will have five digital-only titles and enough information from setting those up to have a model for what works and what doesn’t. Then it’s onto other regions. The process for finding those is based on several factors – what is the local government like? What’s the demographic breakdown? Does the region have a courthouse? Will it be a tough market to break into? Once a location is found then it’s just a matter of hiring a local journalist and a News Local title can be up and running in a matter of weeks.

“When we were finding someone from the Newcastle area we spent a lot of time making sure we spoke to lots of different candidates and selected the right person, someone who had the right mix of skills and experiences and the right connections in the area to make it work. In some respects that’s the most difficult part. But St George took us several months to get off the ground, but now it’s taking a matter of weeks. We have a product team in Sydney who can provide the mastheads, the back-end, the social media accounts, we know what conversations to have with the reporter, what stories we want.”

“We need about eight to 12 stories to launch with and then we’re trying to do somewhere between 12 to 15 stories per week and that’s the current content strategy.”

In the next 12 months McGourty is hoping to have as many digital mastheads as News Local currently has print titles. Now that the roadmap has been prepared it’s just a case of following it in other regions. That’s a growth plan of about one per month, which considering how agile the business model is, shouldn’t be too hard.

With Newcastle set to launch in July, time will tell where the next location will be. But it doesn’t seem like we’ll have to wait long to find out.


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