News.com.au’s Kate de Brito on changing workforces and COVID-19 reader habits

Like many other media companies, News Corp has seen a variety of changes since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. News.com.au’s editor in chief Kate de Brito takes Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston through how the platform is handling changing reader habits, remote working and the economic downturn.

‘Coronavirus: what we know’, ‘’Ground-breaking’ coronavirus vaccine trial set’, ‘Can I visit my family or parents? Australia’s coronavirus lockdown rules and restrictions explained’. It’s been several weeks since Scott Morrison told us to lock down our homes and workplaces and begin taking self-isolation to the next level and several months since we first heard about a deadly illness that might be heading our way from China. Newsrooms have spent those weeks trying to fill the neverending demand for information and coming up with new ways to tackle each angle. And, of course, they’ve been doing it all from home.

“When the bushfires happened we thought that would be the story of 2020, and when we were in the middle of it, it was such an enormous story with such a sense of horror, it was hard to think that anything could eclipse that. Then this happened. Such a global event, it was impossible to think that it wouldn’t become a huge news event, that there wouldn’t be huge reader interest in it and that’s been seen by the numbers across the board, both by us and our competitors,” News.com.au’s editor in chief Kate de Brito tells me.

Kate de Brito : ‘There’s some positivity returning’ 

The readers haven’t given up yet, she says, they’re still hungry for more COVID-19 content, but some of the specs have changed. The toilet roll-dominated narrative of early April gave way eventually as more consumers realised the stores would stay open during the lockdown, and de Brito and her team noticed new trends in the content readers were clicking on.

“In the beginning, they wanted a sense of certainty and people were reaching out to the news sites for updates. I think in those first couple of weeks people were very shocked and the stuff they were reading was very centred on their personal lives. The food shortages, the changes at the supermarkets and of course jobs, those were the things that were most important.

“Now there’s some positivity returning. We saw a flip a couple of weeks ago where people started to want content about what they could do in lockdown. They were fascinated to see what other people were doing, the latest Tik Tok phenomenon, how to cook at home. Lots of searches for lifestyle content – lists of what to watch, what to listen to, how to upskill while you’re in lockdown.”

Adapting to the new normal

There have been changes in consumption habits too, says de Brito. Things still dropped off at Easter, despite the fact Australians were told to stay home over the holiday, but mobile traffic has picked up and the traditional peaks have changed slightly. People are spending longer online, they’re not following the trend of morning, midday and evening viewers, and the sense of timelessness we all feel has been reflected in their habits.

“Readership is much more sustained throughout the day and I think that’s because people are in a timelessness. What day is it? What time is it? It’s sort of like we’re all in the middle of a Vegas casino, no one knows what day, what time it is anymore and it’s definitely changed the way that they look at things.”

March’s Nielsen figures saw news platforms around the country report incredible numbers, in line with the changing times around us. News.com.au is no different. While the platform lost its top spot to the ABC News Websites, the platform has reported a 54% jump in the downloads of its app since January 2020.

News.com.au’s From the Newsroom podcast has leapt to the top of the Australian Podcast Ranker

News.com.au’s podcast From The Newsroom sits at the top of the Australian Podcast Ranker for Australian podcasts, despite only launching in January 2020, and reported over 1m downloads in March.

Newsrooms in 2020

But it isn’t all smooth sailing. News Corp Australia has also been hit with staffing cuts due to coronavirus’ economic impacts and the usual complications that come as a workplace transitions to remote working.

“It can be quite full-on working from home, some people have kids at home, but even to just find yourself staring at your computer for hours and hours a day. That idea that we’d all be putting the washing on and going for walks with the dogs in the middle of the day haven’t eventuated, you’re locked to your computer.”

Newsrooms which usually thrive on hustle and bustle have changed to conversations held via Hangouts or Slack and the ability to turn around on your chair and ask someone for their opinion on a story has been removed. Things have been downgraded or changed, but de Brito says the success with which the business has been able to transition to a remote workforce should set a good example for more flexible options in the future.

“I think it’s probably long overdue. We’ve had the capacity and the technology to do it for some years. I think that some businesses have really clung to the idea that everyone needs to be in an office and that productivity is shown by being there at your desk and we know now that that’s not true. We know that great creativity can come when you’re giving people a bit of space and a bit of flexibility in their busy lives, because it can be an enormous benefit to a business.”

Supporting the workforce

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be felt in Australia for a long time yet, on top of a downturn the country was already experiencing.

“I’m not sure that we’ve quite hit the most difficult parts of where we’re going as an economy. We’ve seen a lot of people lose their jobs in other industries and I’m that we have to be prepared to the fact that the economy’s going to be Rocky for a long time to come,” says de Brito, but one important focus should be on supporting employees through this tough time.

“I’ve tried to tell the team to look after themselves and make sure they get breaks, stay happy and stay well and make sure their family stays well at this time. If nothing else, the coronavirus has brought into focus what really matters – our health, our family and our livelihood. Those are the things I’m trying to remind the staff of.

“You know as well as I do that the numbers have always mattered to us, we love to compete in the market and of course the financial dollars are hugely important – they’re what keep the business running. But we have to just keep going with what we’ve got in front of us for the time being and stay as safe and as sane as we can.”


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