Australia’s recent bushfire crisis was unlike anything we had ever experienced. For three months, the nation was gripped by a once-in-a-generation disaster. Wildfires ravaged our landscape, smoke choked our cities, and together they destroyed lives, businesses, and ecosystems.
We know that when big stories break, people turn to The Sydney Morning Herald. A trusted and experienced news brand of 188 years with 8 million readers per month, the Herald is known for providing compelling, timely coverage without compromise.
But this was no ordinary news event. From the outset, it was clear our readers saw the biggest global challenge — climate change — as one of the most crucial elements of the bushfire crisis. They wanted the Herald to be fearless in pursuit of the issues, providing leadership when politics and policy were failing. This major news event quickly became an opportunity to campaign for greater action on climate change and use this to increase awareness with a wider audience.
We sought to develop the issues through unparalleled and engaging coverage: old fashioned news breaking, digital innovation, and fact-based, grown-up analysis and commentary. We moderated thousands of comments each day to ensure the highest possible engagement on articles.
After a prominent environmentalist minister described a smoke-covered Sydney as “not normal” and called for urgent climate change action, we received more than 17,000 words from readers applauding him and discussing the future direction of the country. This unprecedented response led to a double-page spread of letters in print, and the digital version had an average engagement time of almost three minutes per reader.
Lifting the paywall for the sake of community
Early in the crisis, the Herald lifted its paywall around bushfire content primarily for the safety of its readers — community welfare was front of mind. But we could not have realised what a profound impact this decision would have.
From local communities to global audiences, readers concerned about the immediate fire threat or the world’s future could access our content for free. Our in-depth coverage attracted and engaged new audiences, elevated our brand standing both locally and internationally, and generated revenue. This also showcased our commitment to engage a wide audience for comprehensive discussion and debate.
Leading the coverage were our photojournalists, in particular the Herald’s Chief Photographer Nick Moir, whose decade-long study of severe weather makes him our in-house expert. We used traditional storytelling techniques but also created some visually stunning special projects driven by images and video, including one about the day Moir saw his own hometown all but destroyed.
The coverage involved all sections of the newsroom, and our interactives were a key feature. In one example, we detailed the spread of The Gospers Mountain mega fire, which destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore. The article had more than 331,330 page impressions — 41,296 of which were from our subscribers. This interactive utilised NASA data to track the outbreak of these fires that eventually linked up to form the mega fire.
The strength and quality of the content attracted new readers, and the global media turned to us to showcase Australia’s plight. We used social media boldly and effectively. Climate activist Greta Thunberg retweeted our stories, The Washington Post shared a Herald photographer’s image to its 2.5 million followers, and the BBC used our journalists for context and analysis. All our social media platforms also saw a strong uplift in followers and engagement.
But perhaps most surprisingly, we saw an increase in digital subscriber acquisition of 85% over the corresponding period last year, despite there being no paywall around any bushfire content. Feedback from our readers was that the Herald was providing not only the comprehensive coverage expected of such a major event, but also leadership in the key political and policy-based topics surrounding the human crisis. And people wanted to pay for it.