10 reasons Herald Sun achieved record subscriber results during world’s toughest lockdown

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


For months, Melbourne has endured the most draconian COVID-19 lockdown in the world.

Our newsroom staff has worked from home since March, producing newspapers and keeping Web sites and apps updated from their living rooms. Our reporters and photographers have put themselves in harm’s way to continue their journalism in the field.

Reporting on this pandemic for our city of five million has never been more important — or more challenging. Despite unprecedented roadblocks, we haven’t missed a print edition and kept digital coverage going 24/7. We have adapted technology, like Google Hangouts and Meet, to replicate the energy and collaboration of a newsroom.

The Herald Sun has been vigilant in providing consistent, high-quality content throughout the pandemic, which has resulted in record high subscription numbers.
The Herald Sun has been vigilant in providing consistent, high-quality content throughout the pandemic, which has resulted in record high subscription numbers.

In that time, readership and subscriber engagement have boomed. In just a few months, our already large digital subscriber base ballooned by 15%. Digital traffic jumped 25% in July — the best in the nation.

Despite strict five-kilometer travel limit, curfews, and a city centre that’s become a ghost town, newspaper sales surged to a two-year high. The Herald Sun is now the most read newspaper in Australia every day of the week. Readership of our digital print edition — the newspaper replica for digital devices — broke all News Corp Australia records in August. Our consumer revenue is increasing at a time when newspaper revenue is falling globally. And our digital subscriber base is more engaged and continues to grow at a healthy pace.

So, how has this happened? How have we managed to capture the news spike during the pandemic?

  1. Continuing to break the news. Readers come to us to stay informed through our journalism. Our journalists have led the news agenda, and our best days of engagement and traffic have coincided with exclusive news breaking.
  2. Keeping our community informed in an accessible and timely way. Our political leaders hold a daily press conference outlining restrictions and case numbers. We cover it live through video streams and real-time reporting, distributed widely across our social media platforms. This coverage is free to read. This intense coverage has happened every day without fail and regularly pulls in six-figure pageviews. We use this coverage as a jumping-off point for our subscription journalism, taking readers deeper into the news and analysis of the day.
  3. Being audience-led. This comes from years of honing our understanding of readership trends — from what our audience reads to the devices they want to read on and where they live to when they read. Our journalism is now more valuable to our audience than ever.
  4. Putting readership data in the hands of the content creators. Our journalists, editors, and digital teams get daily traffic right to the story level, helping them make more nuanced decisions.
  5. Engaging existing subscribers. A healthy subscription model relies more on engaging your readers than acquiring them. We always aim to make readers come back more and read more.
  6. Reaching out more. We have ramped up our work on newsletters and alerts.
  7. Using social media to drive results for our business, not theirs. Our focus has been to share subscription content heavily on social channels and drive people to us. We’ve also been engaging existing subscribers who use social as their “home page.” In just a few months, we drove more than AUD$1 million in new subscription revenue off of Facebook alone.
  8. Constantly communicating the “offer.” Readers need to know what they get when they subscribe to a news service. For us, it’s no longer just a marketing function. We have incorporated promotion of our subscription into the editorial world, producing stories for all of our channels to reinforce the value proposition.
  9. Investing in local journalism. We launched new digital-only mastheads through our local journalism arm, Leader. This means putting reporters into cities and regions where we have not had a traditional presence.
  10. Backing original journalism. Our proposition is built around content that originates in our newsroom, not copy-and-paste stories from other sources and passing them off as our own. Churnalism is not how we will sustain our business.

So, the takeaway? Readers will gravitate to local and trusted news in times of crisis, but you need a good structure and laser-sharp focus on your readers to engage and grow an audience.

About Nathaniel Bane

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