News.com.au’s Kate de Brito on what it takes to be number one

Of the past 55 months, News.com.au has held the top spot in the Nielsen Digital Content Ratings for 54 (it was toppled briefly by the ABC in July 2016 for the federal election). Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston sat down with editor-in-chief Kate de Brito to find out what it takes to be number one in Australia’s busy digital news landscape.

According to the May 2019 Nielsen Digital Content Ratings, News.com.au isn’t just a name synonymous with digital news in Australia, it can also boast over 10 million UAs. This is a figure the platform can add to another fairly impressive number – News.com.au has held the top spot in the DCR for 54 out of the last 55 months, only dropping it in July 2016 when the ABC became the most-visited news site for the federal election.

Since January 2017, the person charged with keeping news.com.au ticking over has been Kate de Brito. She returned to the company after a year as editor-in-chief at Mamamia. Prior to that, she was News Corp’s editorial network head of digital and news editor at News.com.au.

But before all that, de Brito got her start as a copy girl for The Daily Telegraph, meaning she’s seen the full transition of media at News Corp, from the heady days of print newsrooms to the non-stop tick of digital homepages. When I ask de Brito which she likes more, and whether she’d ever return to print, she laughs.

de Brito: I’d never go back to print 

“No. No, I’d never go back to print. I love digital. Doing my cadetship and being a copy girl at the Telegraph, working my way up the ladder were some of the happiest years of my life and it was such a great environment to be a young journo in. Being a journo was such a good job you felt like you should be paying someone to be able to do it. But when I landed in digital and got to understand what was going on I loved the data and I loved being able to say very quickly whether the readers gave a shit about something. It takes the arrogance out of it,” said de Brito.

“I remember being a young journo and you’d sit beside someone on a train and they would turn the page and be on page three and you’d be thinking ‘Please turn over, my story is on page five’ and they’d finally turn over and then flip past it and not read your story. You could tell a good day from a bad day through increased circulation, but you didn’t have the ability to tap in and get your head around things subject by subject, story by story. I just love that insight.”

Using analytics to drive conversation

That insight is incredibly important when you’re running a news platform like News.com.au which isn’t just based around breaking stories, but also around building and encouraging conversations. When a topic is identified that readers respond well to, the strategy is to get as many opinions, look at as many angles and essentially milk the topic for all its worth. Lately they haven’t been short of fodder either, the Israel Folau debate has raged across News.com.au as it has on other outlets, with regular columnist and editor-at-large Joe Hildebrand, political reporter Sam Clench, and sports reporter Paul Johnson all penning opinion pieces as the story unfolded, alongside the ongoing news coverage.

“We do a different job to print media. We come in in the morning and see what the conversations are that are starting the day, and from there we try to propel them forward. We also try to start our own conversations based on what we know our readers are interested in and again they tell us very clearly what they’re interested in because we can see the data minute by minute, hour by hour. So if they’re excited about a story that excites us it gives us an ability to decide quite quickly that this is an area of interest for them and something we should chase after.”

Furthering those conversations goes beyond just covering the topic a lot. In the case of Falou, de Brito says the team were trying to drill down to what it was readers found so interesting about the story. Was it the political correctness gone mad angle? The religious preaching? If they don’t like both, which side of the fence are they going to land on? With so much to unpack, a topic like Falou gives News.com.au endless fodder.

The importance of a good team

Inside the News.com.au newsroom

But, noise is just noise if it isn’t handled correctly. There’s more to it than just generating a thousand think pieces and throwing them out into the internet, de Brito says. Each one needs to be perfectly tailored for the audience, there needs to be testing done, headlines need to be perfected, the right image needs to be selected. For all the pieces of this puzzle to come together you need the right team, and that’s one area where News.com.au really excels, says de Brito.

“Everyone will say you need a great team, but we have a phenomenal team. Sometimes when people spend time in our newsroom, we get people from throughout the News Corp business who come and spend time with us, I think people realise quite quickly that when it comes to digital, we know what we’re talking about. We’re not being arrogant about that, but I think we do. I’ve been working at News.com.au on and off for seven years, our editor, Lisa Muxworthy, has been with us for about five or six. A lot of the people here have worked in digital for a lot of years and they know what they’re talking about.”

When you’ve spent so long sitting in the top spot there are two problems that hit. The first is complacency and the second is how many people want to see you fail, especially when it was proven in 2016 that it was possible to topple News.com.au. De Brito insists the team has never, and will never, become complacent. For the recent election, they dedicated more time to making sure the site was well positioned to maintain its spot this time, and it did. Learning from previous mistakes is an important part of maintaining that top spot says de Brito, and never taking it for granted that your audience will just continue coming to you if you haven’t done the work to let them know why they should.

“With the 2016 election in mind, we did a lot of planning. We knew the tsunami was coming. And the fact we managed to hold the ABC off this time is something we’re incredibly proud of. Our team did great work, they knew what our readers wanted from the coverage, and we provided that. But again, we didn’t take any of it for granted.”

Fighting for eyeballs

It isn’t just the ABC threatening News.com.au. While News Corp’s platform has been a a top-performer in the digital space, it’s a landscape that’s changing often. Nine.com.au is a fairly new entrant, and they’ve been incredibly effective in their movements, taking third spot and occasionally knocking ABC off second. Seven and Yahoo recently finalised their split which means they’re now listed separately and each keen to build more audience share. Ten Daily is only a year old but recently debuted on the Nielsen list. There are threats outside the publishers too, Facebook and Google have been pulling eyeballs away from news sites for a while now, and with companies like Apple looking for a slice of the pie, and international platforms like CNN and The New York Times voicing their interest in growing their Australian audiences, there’s plenty of reasons for de Brito to keep her eye on the ball.

If she’s worried though, it doesn’t show. When I ask her about the biggest threats in the industry, she says – aside from the recent defamation ruling which could seriously impact publishers should it hold up to an appeal – she only sees opportunities. News.com.au recently launched an app, which has been really well received in the market according to de Brito, and recently the platform has been flexing its muscles in the cause-related campaign space, which is something they will look to grow even further.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in digital media, a lot of areas to grow, especially for us because we’re flexible. We’re looking at more ways we can make a difference, we’re looking to do some more stuff in the campaign space. We’ve done campaigning around organ donation, we did some work around mental health, particularly men’s suicide. Traditionally that’s been a space for print, but we’ve evolved and we’re starting to realise all the leverage we have around social media and the many ways we can get a message to readers. So that’s something we’re trying to grow as well.”

“I really love the changes that happen in the market. It’s great having competition. A lot of people got really worked up when the Daily Mail came in, but I think it’s great having competition in the market. The changes like Yahoo and Seven splitting, and Nine rejuvenating itself have just created new challenges, but they’re a good thing.

“It’s sort of a new wave, we’re done with the first wave of digital, we know what we’re doing. We’ve established some good guidelines. Now it’s about what’s next. We ask ourselves that all the time, what’s next?”

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