How the Herald Sun’s content drives digital subscriptions

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


At the heart of a successful digital subscription strategy must lie the most important and valuable asset a news service has: its journalism.

These are a few ground rules we’ve applied at the Herald Sun in Melbourne as we transition from Australia’s best-selling newspaper into a multi-platform subscription news service.

The Herald Sun has stuck by a few key guidelines that have helped guide its digital growth.
The Herald Sun has stuck by a few key guidelines that have helped guide its digital growth.

The value of journalism

We kept original journalism central to what we do. Our reporters don’t sit at computers copying and pasting work from other sources. They get out and gather stories. Traditional boots-on-the-ground journalism.

Our police reporters speak to victims and police contacts. Our court reporters sit in courtrooms covering trials.

Our food reviewers eat at new restaurants our readers are talking about. Our movie reviewers see the movies first.

Our sport journalists are at the games and the training sessions, interviewing players and club officials, to keep fans deeply informed on the teams they follow.

Their original, news-breaking journalism has value.

Stay true to your roots

The Herald Sun’s news-breaking heritage and leadership position lies in three key areas: Australian rules football, crime, and local news. This has been carried across from the newspaper to digital.

We publish content from the same pool of journalists and have the same approach in our tone: being parochial, fighting for our readers, and focusing on the topics that matter most to the 4.9 million people in Melbourne and 1.4 million people in regional Victoria.

There may be a commercial temptation to pivot to content of mass appeal, which is a strategy that can be achieved efficiently by ripping off content from other sources and going after a global, advertising-driven model. But we’ve chosen to focus on news and events directly affecting our community. Our print heritage can be traced to 1840.

This approach has resulted in us building a loyal subscription following.

Empowering journalists

With the journalists in place to break the stories, it’s important we empower them to take control of the content they create.

We hold master classes to give journalists the digital skills and knowledge they need in a modern newsroom. We run master classes in SEO. Journalists are trained to build their own stories for digital publishing. They shoot video when needed.

They are equipped to join comment threads on stories and talk to readers, building engagement, and finding new angles to build on their journalism.

Democratising data

Our journalists and newsroom leaders have digital data at their fingertips. 

This year we launched a digital dashboard called Verity. Journalists now know how their stories performed in digital, including the number of pageviews, the number of subscriptions their content has generated, where the audience comes from, and where their content has been published. They can also see what stories across the newsroom readers are engaging with in real time.

This is putting the power of digital publishing in their hands.

Multi-skilled teams

We are merging our production teams for print and Web as much as possible to build a multi-skilled team that can push content to audiences regardless of the platform. 

While this is a work in progress, we have seen staff develop new skills ensuring our journalism reaches the widest possible audience in a more effective way.

While there are challenges for our newsroom, just as there are in many around the world, we believe we have the right fundamental elements of a long-term subscription strategy.

The result

We are ahead of this year’s targets for subscriptions driven by content. We have driven down churn and our engagement scores have increased.

Core to this is putting the power of digital growth in the hands of our newsroom and the people who create the content — the content for which readers have willingly paid for many decades.

A successful digital news subscription strategy is only as good as the content. And the content is only as good as the journalists and newsrooms creating it.

About Nathaniel Bane

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