Having been to Australia many times in the past two decades, I feel like the uncle who sees his nieces occasionally — seeing their evolution in ways the parents don’t on a day-to-day basis. Parents don’t see the growth spurts. The uncle does. 

I have spent the past week with a bird’s eye view of the Australian news media industry: personal visits to News Corp and Fairfax Media in Sydney, the Herald Sun in Melbourne, McPherson Media in Shepparton, and Seven West Media in Perth.

News Corp Australia Chief Digital Officer Nicole Sheffield shows off the company’s Web sites, including major changes about to be rolled out.
News Corp Australia Chief Digital Officer Nicole Sheffield shows off the company’s Web sites, including major changes about to be rolled out.

That’s a mix of corporates, nationals, metropolitans, and communities — all the big players and a sampling of the smaller players that make up the Australian media landscape. This is my first country to visit on a 37-day around-the-world tour of INMA member companies on three continents (follow via social media at #INMAOntheRoad). 

In my last visit to Australia four years ago, my over-simplified view of the three major players here was like a beautiful microcosm of what is happening with news media worldwide: 

  • The West Australian (now owned by Seven West Media) was the harshest defender of print. 
  • Fairfax Media pushed digital and centralisation the hardest. 
  • News Corp was somewhere in the middle of the print-digital divide. 

None of the players today dispute that view from 2013. Yet the uncle’s perspective shows shifts that the casual observer outside of Australia should pay attention to: 

  • Seven West Media is shifting hard to a digital focus or at least away from a “last bastion” stance for print. 
  • Fairfax Media is pulling back from its centralisation strategy a bit, is a tad more supportive of print, and is pretty smart about where to place its bets and where not to. Media seems a means to an end in terms of shareholder value — creating a market cap beauty like the real estate vertical Domain. 
  • News Corp has moved less in four years than the other players, yet I would characterise them as more digital-friendly and more digital-culture muscular. They seem to be less centralised than Fairfax, empowering their local news brands to take paths conducive to their markets. 

I should point out, too, that while their P&Ls might suggest a decline in print, the uncle sees amazingly robust print newspapers — from nationals to metros to communities — rich with advertising and populated by that Aussie sassy spirit.

A meeting with the management team at Seven West Media in Perth, Australia.
A meeting with the management team at Seven West Media in Perth, Australia.

I am a big believer that as experts anticipate a 10-fold increase in digital information at consumer fingertips in the next three years, people are drowning by the day with news overload.

If news media is to avoid becoming white-label publishers for platforms, their brands have to have personality. Newsrooms may be loathe to talk in these terms historically, but the Australian newsrooms are coming around to this point of view when faced with what value they have in a complicated ecosystem.

So while the digital subscription news from The Australian (approximately 100,000 digital subscribers and 100,000 additional print subscribers!) and the Australian Financial Review are great stories for quality journalism worldwide, my ongoing love of Australian regional media — the more isolated, apparently, the bigger the personality — shows an abundance of personality.

That’s an asset, from an international perspective, that the Australians don’t seem to understand they’re sitting on. 

My Australian city-based colleagues may not share my enthusiasm, but give me the personality-rich crocodile front pages of the NT News from the Northern Territory (stop the laughter, Australian media elites … I love this newspaper!). 

Now, who is to say the uncle doesn’t have it all wrong? 

A town hall meeting at McPherson Media in Shepparton, Australia, yielded more than an hour of questions after an INMA presentation on the state of the industry.
A town hall meeting at McPherson Media in Shepparton, Australia, yielded more than an hour of questions after an INMA presentation on the state of the industry.

There are commonalities among the Big 3 that extend into community news organisations with whom I interacted at the Inform News Media Summit in Sydney and personally visited at McPherson Media in Shepparton:

  1. The new economics of content: There is a healthy obsession about the economics of content from a consumer perspective. Clearly, the digital advertising model isn’t working. Clearly, we are all going to be in the digital subscription business. Yet there is a clear gap in knowledge and performance even as the fog of new metrics emerge (i.e., Netflix probably sets the market rate, 10% of free registered users paying something seems to be a goal, and 30% of most markets have a propensity to pay for something either in digital or print). 
  2. Purity that brings editorial to the strategy table: There is a purity to the debate about the economics of content that I have never seen in my lifetime. I know this isn’t unique to Australia, yet as a microcosm of the news industry worldwide and my focus the past week, it is what I deliver today. I heard it in all my visits in Sydney, Melbourne, Shepparton, and Perth. While we want advertising, when you boil down the discussion to journalism, the consumer, data tools, and how to add value (triggering subscriptions or creating brand ROI), you suddenly have this dynamic where editorial is a partner in a way they were not in an advertising-focused industry. You have editors telling the commercial side how to optimise. But to get to that point requires benchmarks, data tools, and metrics for which we are in Grade 1 of a 12-grade journey. 
  3. Healthy discussions about role of print: With an Inform News Media Summit presentation by Polish designer Jacek Utko still ringing in my ears, I got a lot of questions in Shepparton and Melbourne about the role of print in the future. My answers: Print will be around a long time, but its role as a primary conveyor of news is rapidly vanishing now. That’s not all bad. As Utko said earlier in the week, news on paper is shifting to magazine high-design and demands a new creativity that print didn’t have in years past. My interpretation of this is print as a conveyor of news brand value rather than information — a shifting role that will become more pronounced in the coming years. As the economics of print dwindle, publishers will print fewer editions during the week. Worst-case, print loses its financial value and becomes a loss-leader promotional vehicle for the brand in a broader digital ecosystem. 
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson addresses the newsroom at Seven West Media in Perth, Australia. Seven West Media houses newspaper, television, radio, and magazine brands in a single newsroom.
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson addresses the newsroom at Seven West Media in Perth, Australia. Seven West Media houses newspaper, television, radio, and magazine brands in a single newsroom.

In terms of outlier observations, I came away with these:

  • News-seeking audiences: At Fairfax, I heard this strategic observation in terms of audience strategy: We will do better with news-seeking audiences than accidental audiences (i.e., Facebook). 
  • Re-thinks of Web sites: Both News Corp and Fairfax are going through decently radical re-thinks of their Web sites across properties. Both seem to have beta-like sites they are putting all energies into before rolling out templated versions nationally — with clear nuances between the two companies on how hard-wired the templates will be. 
  • News brands: With Seven West Media now owning the West Australian, The Sunday Times, Seven Network, radio, and magazines, there is a Ph.D. discussion about mother brands and sub-brands and what adds value to the reader and advertiser relationships. This question came up last week in Sydney, too. 
  • Reduced ad formats: One clear-cut similarity with News Corp and Fairfax in their Web site rollouts: dramatically reduced advertising formats and a shift from desktop focus to mobile focus. 
  • News experience values: Loved the news experience values from Fairfax in their Web site re-thinks: clarity plus cut-through, inspiration + escape, mastery, belonging. 
  • The Australian breakthrough: A little surprised at the breakthrough by News Corp’s The Australian, a national newspaper not known as a profit center for a long time. It’s making money now, and digital subscriptions are at the heart of this. Digital subscriptions for The Australian are up 25% in the past year to 100,000 — which, to my eye, is outrageously good given its print circulation of 100,000. 
  • Subscriptions at general-interest newspapers: All publishers seem clear-eyed on the different experiences with digital subscriptions. The Australian and the Australian Financial Review fit neatly into the category of “they had better damned well be successful” — they are journalism high-brands, they have audience demos willing to pay, and the like. The challenge now are the general-interest metropolitan news brands, just as it is worldwide. News Corp is pairing free headsets with digital subscriptions, which yields results yet reminds me of the perpetual challenges in the era of print units of circulation saturated by promotions: Are people buying the subscription or the headset? I guess we will find out upon renewals.
  • The emerging importance of newsletters: Got a great question in Shepparton that I have gotten a lot of in Latin America and North America in recent months: With 80% of digital traffic coming via Facebook (a very high number by industry standards, which I peg closer to 45% worldwide), how to get more eyeballs directly on Shepparton News content rather than fickle eyeballs? My emerging answer, hammered home visit after visit, is so old-fashioned as to be insulting: newsletters. They are inexpensive, we better understand success metrics, they are opt-in, force publishers to find passion subjects, and are relatively inexpensive. The big global players can have 20-30 newsletters to carve out their content universes. I was a bit surprised The Daily Telegraph in Sydney has a newsletter dedicated to the old-fashioned letters-to-the-editor. The Australian Financial Review has a more traditional approach with time-based newsletters in the early morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. A combination of subjects and time are increasingly common. 
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson interacting with executives from the South Pacific’s leading news media companies: INMA Vice President Damian Eales of News Corp, Board member Greg Hywood of Fairfax Media, News Corp Executive Chairman Michael Miller, Fairfax New Zealand’s Sinead Boucher, and the Herald Sun’s Nathaniel Bane and Kim Du Bois.
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson interacting with executives from the South Pacific’s leading news media companies: INMA Vice President Damian Eales of News Corp, Board member Greg Hywood of Fairfax Media, News Corp Executive Chairman Michael Miller, Fairfax New Zealand’s Sinead Boucher, and the Herald Sun’s Nathaniel Bane and Kim Du Bois.

Finally, kudos to Australia’s national press association, Newsmediaworks for taking on the ongoing project of trust in media — one of the brand attributes that resonate worldwide. They are mostly doing this in the context of advertiser trust in safe brand environments, yet I think more work should be done to focus on trust vs. truth among consumers.

In talking privately with an industry expert on this in Sydney, I was intrigued by this observation: Trust is paramount, but trust also can be a reinforcing brand vehicle in bubble echo chambers. Arch-conservative audiences may trust Breitbart, but its commitment to facts that fit a pre-determined narrative are not a commitment to truth.

A marketing communication remedy to that conundrum is at the heart of the “opportunity in chaos” that Trump’s assault on legacy media provides — if we can battle his “dog whistles” with better dog whistles. 

This is a lot of verbiage spilled over one week in Australia, yet it is a testament to the unique access I had. Many thanks to INMA members in Sydney, Melbourne, Shepparton, and Perth for opening your doors — to me and, by default, to the global INMA community.

Stay tuned for more updates from this trip, here or following #INMAOnTheRoad.