Reinventing print: how Stuff reinvigorated readers, streamlined advertising

By Mark Stevens


Wellington, New Zealand


On Sunday, April 29, 2018, New Zealand’s largest media company, Stuff, changed the shape of its nine daily newspapers.

A change of this magnitude and scale was significant, but we knew it was necessary to address declining print revenue and breathe new life into our publications, some of which are more than 150 years old.

We redesigned the look of the newspapers and how our newsrooms worked. We refreshed content based on reader feedback and changed the way in which we sized and allocated advertisements (from traditional columns and centimetres to modular sizes).

Stuff listened to its readers’ needs in redesigning and rethinking its print products.
Stuff listened to its readers’ needs in redesigning and rethinking its print products.

Responding to our readers

In a country of 4.6 million people, 83% of whom are 15 years old and above, Stuff and its products touch nine out of 10 Kiwis daily. We have a fiercely competitive media environment, and our position is one we want to maintain.

In late October last year, we made the announcement that nine of our broadsheets would be moving to the compact size at the end of April 2018. It was a working timeline of less than six months, taking into account the impact of Christmas and the summer holiday period.

Supported by the understanding that this was what readers wanted, we mobilised to ensure customers and staff would properly understand what we were trying to do.

Throughout the rework, we focused on producing a newspaper appealing to subscribers and advertisers; by reimagining the newspaper, we were reinvesting in print.

Showcasing the new newspapers

Headed by national Sales Manager Janet Smith and Editor-in-Chief Bernadette Courtney, we built a small, dedicated, and committed team to bring the ambitious announcement to fruition. We held compact feedback sessions around the country, hosted by the local editor and Courtney, sharing with our readers a regionalised compact prototype. We were blown away by the feedback, with readers loving the size as well as the refreshed and expanded content.

We beefed up our analysis and opinion — a favourite with subscribers — and introduced new columnists, a daily in-depth feature, obituaries, a history page, and revamped weather, sharemarket, and television pages. Our political and national news was also expanded, and two of our metropolitan titles, The Dominion Post and The Press, gained extra opinion content.

The changes made to the publications have been well received by readers.
The changes made to the publications have been well received by readers.

Circuit breaker for the newsroom

The move to compact has also been a circuit breaker for our newsrooms, with masthead-specific production duties — including subbing, headline writing, and the curation and checking of pages — completely stripped out. This now sits in a centralised team with newly created regional print champions working closely with local editors to curate the best content for each newspaper. We’ve moved to a fully templated model with the option of front-page, feature, and special project pages given bespoke treatment by our layout design team.

In the first month of the new format, we’ve heard from hundreds of readers. Editors’ inboxes have been flooded with good wishes and notes of congratulations for revitalising their newspapers. The size and portability of the compact newspapers is the main hit, especially with our elderly and commuting readers:

  • “I want to congratulate you for at last printing a newspaper that is a manageable size.”
  • “Ray, 90, just rang, almost in tears, to tell us how life changing this had been. He said he was starting to find it really difficult in his old age to manoeuvre the broadsheet and that he just loved the new compact.”
  • “The new format is a breath of fresh air! It fits on our kitchen bench and is a pleasure to read. We have been saying for years, ‘If only it was smaller!’ Now the three of us fit at the bench for breakfast. My husband, myself, and the paper! The content is varied and interesting. At last news and entertainment in a package that suits our lifestyle.”
  • “I love the new format — I think it’s fresh and modern — easily manageable with the smaller size for trains, buses, planes — easier to manage at home also at the table or on the couch.”

We also know that we didn’t get everything right and some tweaks have already been made around things like crossword placement and weather maps. Overall, though, feedback confirms we’ve done right by our readers and have even attracted some new subscribers.

From 100+ ad shapes to 18

The change to compact was also huge for our commercial sales department. We completely overhauled the format of advertisements and cut the number of ad sizes dramatically, making it significantly simpler for customers.

Our sales consultants had a massive job — briefing more than 6,000 customers and talking them through practical solutions to help them understand the changes. Not surprisingly, it was an easy sell.

Our advertising staff walked advertisers through the prototype newspapers page-by-page and brought them up to speed on our new modular specs and sizes. More than 80% of canvassed advertisers said the change would be better for them and their customers. Not one advertiser felt the change would be worse.

The smaller format enables greater cut through for our small- to medium-sized advertisers. Plus, having the same size format as the other major publisher in the country, NZME, made it easier for our larger customers and advertising agencies.

Every advertiser had the choice about how it would migrate to the new format. Overall, we have been delighted with the transition. For many advertisers, migrating to compact also involved increasing their use of our digital assets, Stuff and Neighbourly.

Sustaining the print format

The ongoing success of our mastheads comes down to the relevance and trust built up through years of local content and delivery. Because our brands have heritage, they’ve earned the respect of our readers.

It could be argued the change to compact was a risk to this, but the real risk was not doing anything and allowing revenue and readership to continue to decline. This transition has undoubtedly demonstrated our commitment to print and enabled us to extend the runway of our much-loved products.

We have the largest networked newsroom in New Zealand, and our commitment to local news is unrivalled. Together with national and international news, we’ve got our readers’ interests covered — and, thanks to compact, we will continue to for the foreseeable future.

About Mark Stevens

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