Herald Sun’s staff engages mobile readers with fail fast editorial initiative

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


The Herald Sun has one of Australia’s biggest digital subscription audiences, so we have a lot to protect.

When thinking about protecting an audience, it’s easy to be risk averse. And it’s hard to risk failure.

In 2015, we conducted an editorial project to boost readership and engagement on mobile through real-world experimentation.

Things worked. Metrics were up across the board, some almost doubling by the end of the trial.

The Herald Sun's willingness to try new things also led to an unexpected result.
The Herald Sun's willingness to try new things also led to an unexpected result.

But something else unexpected happened, resulting in a longer-term win for our newsroom and readers.

We will come to that later.

The project we undertook was to re-think our newsroom.

A team of journalists, producers, photographers, and video journalists was brought together from the Herald Sun and across our parent company, News Corp, to experiment on design, content, story-telling tools, time of day publishing, and social media.

It was a live trial with real audiences over six weeks.

The team took over the Herald Sun’s mobile Web site — with full editorial control and freedom to try new things with live content and, most importantly, given permission to fail.

As long as the team failed fast.

It was a radical notion for a newsroom used to methodical planning and careful consideration when launching new Web site sections, newspaper lift-outs, and other products.

One of the aims was to stress test emerging reporting tools on our audience, from Periscope to WhatsApp.

The team worked alongside the main newsroom but was not tied to any editorial decisions made for the newspaper or desktop site, allowing for experimentation and nimbleness.

The team altered design, tone, and length of articles, and experimented with new story-telling tools.

A city protest was covered on Periscope.

Live stories were told using social media posts from our reporters and readers. We reacted to social trends, hot topics, and Melbourne events to suit the time of day — commuter bulletins in the mornings and afternoons, live television and sports coverage during the evenings.

We launched a widget allowing producers to instantly report breaking news on our mobile Web site (m.site) as well as via off-platform alerts. And, in short time, we built a pull-down for the top of the m.site revealing three stories matching the reader’s post code — stories “around me.”

The content strategy was structured around six pillars:

  1. Fast, live, and breaking news, a “three paragraphs in three minutes” mantra. 

  2. Australian Rules Football, a Melbourne obsession that takes over weekends.

  3. Suburban/local news.

  4. Stories generated for and from social — highly shareable content. 

  5. Alerts via WhatsApp, particularly for our fantasy football game, SuperCoach.

  6. Long-form stories and opinion by our leading writers in stripped-back articles (just text, one picture, or one video) for fast loading.

The programme resulted in strong increases, with unique visitors, page impressions, time on site, and social referrals all up — some metrics as high as 92% growth in a six-week period.

So what drove engagement?

  1. Live breaking news covered first, fast, and accurately.

  2. Unique content tailored to make the most of the mobile platform.

  3. Original content written by Herald Sun staffers, not rewrites. 

  4. Live, immersive reporting, taking our readers to the scene.

We didn’t pull back from our subscription model, publishing premium content and in-depth articles written by our leading journalists. But on mobile, we stripped back embedded assets to ensure articles loaded as fast as possible.

Almost a year on, we are seeing nearly half of our digital subscription sign-ups coming via mobile phones — challenging the notion that readers will not subscribe from a handset.

The team was given a series of new ideas to trial each week, from a daily wrap of news to a “mum and dad’s” stock report when the markets closed.

If the ideas were not successful within the week, they were killed off. But if an experiment worked, we made sure to integrate into our normal day.

Local news from our suburban newspaper group performed incredibly well, so we placed its digital news production team into the heart of the Herald Sun’s newsroom.

By trial’s end, the mobile editorial team was integrated back into the main newsroom with all the learned knowledge an intensive real-world experiment delivered.

Changing audience engagement was a big achievement in such a short space of time.

But the biggest win — one we did not expect to happen so fast — was the change in newsroom culture.

Journalists and photographers not involved in the project came to visit (we set the team up on a different floor to encourage unique thinking). They heard about the successes and they wanted to play their part in different ways.

Senior management backed the programme and ensured successes — and failures — were shared with everyone.

Reporters saw their content treated in different ways and were asked to cover the news in new formats, resulting in a fresh perspective on how audiences wanted news delivered.

Now reporters are offering to Periscope live events, live tweeting from the scene of breaking news, using our Livefyre reporting tool to provide instant updates, and filing content all day long.

The pilot was a successful way to drive home cultural change within the newsroom. Being not afraid to fail can result in rapid success.

About Nathaniel Bane

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