When bushfires erupted in in 2019, they began a path of devastation that spread across some 25.5 million acres and drew global attention. The fires, burning since July, had become a full-blown national crisis over Christmas and the New Year’s holiday.
Top of mind for News Corp Australia’s executive chairman was how best to provide urgent bushfire relief. Michael Miller’s first order of business for 2020 was to call a one-hour meeting of senior editors, marketing, and corporate affairs.
As far back as November, News Corp had donated A$25,000 to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund and another A$25,000 to the Salvation Army Emergency Services.
Yet the growing emergency had left more communities devastated, more people left needing life’s immediate necessities, and those things that only come with time — if ever.
A strategy was created: Community resources would be marshalled to help raise more funds and to send the message that the task ahead demanded a long-term commitment to all affected communities.
Planning coverage in a crisis
Editorial tactics were decided, too. We planned a week of special bushfire editions with the theme “Australia Unites,” culminating in a special Australia Day edition on January 26, 2020, to celebrate the Australian spirit.
As our business’ community ambassador, I’m responsible for our News in the Community programme, which supports our corporate aim of informing, advocating, and inspiring to build a better Australia to create stronger communities. It’s the latest iteration of our long commitment to supporting communities, such as The Good Friday Appeal, which has raised funds for The Royal Children’s Hospital since 1931.
That we would stand by fire-affected communities would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this history.
Despite skeleton staff numbers, Mick Carroll, The Sunday Telegraph’s editor, moved quickly after the meeting, setting up a national network team run by the masthead’s news editor, Miranda Wood, to also serve as bushfire chief of staff. Two bushfire news meetings were held daily in addition to each state newsroom generating local stories.
It began with a special “thank you” edition on Tuesday, January 21, when the proceeds from sales and advertising from the four main metro mastheads — the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Courier-Mail and The Advertiser — were donated to bushfire relief. Proceeds from our 150-year old weekly rural masthead, The Weekly Times — known as “the Bible of the Bush” — followed suit.
Outpouring of support
Readers and advertisers backed the initiative in a big way. All five mastheads bulged with advertisements, leading some to say they were the biggest books ever. More than A$1.5 million was generated — part of the A$11 million-plus News Corp Australia, its associated interests and leaders have now raised — the most of any media organisation.
The next day, the four metros published a 24-page photographic special featuring images that helped define the disaster for the entire world.
Thursday’s edition turned its attention to the toll on the nation’s wildlife, while Friday looked at fundraising, and Saturday reported the rebuilding efforts already taking place.
Mick says the fires tapped deep into the Australian psyche and marked a first for the nation’s Millennial generation: “This was a recalibration of the Australian legend. Millennials had heard about the Australian legend of camaraderie and mateship and of pulling together for a common cause but not seen it writ large until now.”
Mick says it was the first time “we’d done something like this on the run,” establishing a powerful editorial model.
Beyond special editions
While the special editions formed an important part of our bushfire response, they were but one part.
Much depended on the reporting already undertaken by our news crews in the weeks and months before — some 160 reporters and photographers — again, the most of any commercial media organisation and often against life-threatening odds.
“It was very humbling and we are very proud of our people on the ground,” Mick says of their efforts. “All the news desks and deputies — pretty much everyone around the country — worked so hard to bring the incredible content to life.”
The fires are out now, and the bush has started its recovery. But the human damage lasts forever.
So, with an eye on the long-term, we’re hatching new plans. Plans like establishing a digital-only masthead on the NSW south coast whose sole purpose will be capturing the hyper-local stories of the recovery.
As Mick says, “This work demonstrated how effective as a business we can be when all of our assets, including digital, print, and broadcast, are working together. It was a good lesson in how powerful we can be when we band together for a common cause.”