Growing audience isn’t necessarily the biggest challenge for publishers in the digital world.

A tweak to your social strategy or a quick burst of “viral” content can result in new eyeballs quickly.

What’s more difficult for publishers is securing a consistent, engaged — and, ultimately, paying — audience.

At the Herald Sun, one of Australia’s best-selling newspapers, we have been used to servicing a large audience for decades.

The Herald Sun's paid audience consists of those most interested in the brand and its products.
The Herald Sun's paid audience consists of those most interested in the brand and its products.

In the early days of Web publishing, we went hunting eyeballs by giving our content away for free. The aim was to generate strong ad revenue out of a big audience.

We saw Web site readership (before rise of mobile and tablet) grow rapidly just as our newspaper readership started to decline in line with global trends.

In 2011-12, our Web site was the third most popular news site in the country, with audience growth tracking to compete for that all-important top spot — and the associated ad revenue that would have gone with it.

But, ultimately, building this large free audience was at odds with the core of our business: creating and publishing content people would pay for.

A new digital strategy had to be employed. We needed to grow our overall paid audience. We had to get back to building a loyal readership, people who were invested in our news brand and products.

With that came all the challenges publishers face revolutionising an industry and shifting consumer behaviour.

The ride to getting people to pay for online news has been exciting and is by no means done. But we now have a much clearer understanding of what customers demand, and our business is better geared to meeting those demands.

And the story we can tell is a positive one.

Our print and digital newspaper sales increased by 0.5% in the year leading up to March 2016.

According to Australian Bureau of Circulation data, total masthead sales of the Monday-to-Friday Herald Sun grew from 379,283 to 381,203. The Herald Sun also recorded strong readership numbers with official figures from emma (Enhanced Media Metrics Australia) showing that, in the past month, more than 2.6 million individuals turned to our print edition and more than 2.5 million to our digital platforms for their news fix.

The number of people signing up for our digital subscription continues to climb, above budgeted forecasts.

The positive results build on our reputation of being an agenda-setting media organisation, both in our state and nationally. When we announced the results to the public, editor Damon Johnston said, “Whether it’s our front page, Web site, or mobile site, the Herald Sun sets the agenda across news, investigative journalism, sport, and entertainment.”

It’s important that we can tell this story because of the pervasive narrative that print and digital news media is in decline. The truth is it’s not. We don’t have an audience problem.

By bringing our digital and print strategies into one to focus on the one task of growing overall paid audience, we have made it easier for the newsroom to focus and better meet the needs of that audience: To cover news live. To produce video content. To build photo galleries. To create multi-media around documents and data of public interest.

By putting a price on our digital journalism, we have given it more value inside our newsroom as well.

There are a few lessons we have learned along the way.

• Readers don’t want shiny new things. They want content that entertains, excites, challenges, or enhances their lives. They want a consistent, convenient service.

• Consumers accepted paying for content in a printed format without question for years. It stood to reason they would digitally as well, but it had to packaged in a format of their choice, whether as a constantly updating news stream on a mobile phone app with alerts, a native interactive tablet edition, a full digital replica of the newspaper, an app of football journalism complemented by live scores and in-depth team statistics, or exclusive enhanced data for our hugely popular fantasy football product, SuperCoach.

• We’ve learned that to be successful in growing a paying audience, you must stay true to your strengths and brand.

It’s important for us to focus on what we do best — and keep striving to do it better — while finding other ways to still service most everything else. Our strengths are local news affecting the city and state we serve, Australian Rules football, opinion, and crime.

We make good use of a range of shared news services covering national and world affairs and tailor them to our audience, allowing our newsroom to be the best it can be at covering our community.

In such a fractured market where we are competing for people’s time and money, there is a very bright future for journalism that puts a value on itself.