In-house team shapes coverage for younger readers at Sydney Morning Herald, Age

By Aimie Rigas


Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

By Mex Cooper

The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times, and WAToday

Melbourne, Australia


It’s a challenge most newsrooms face: How to engage younger readers.

The average age of news subscribers skews older across the world, and social media is increasingly the main news source for younger consumers. The longevity and success of media outlets is dependent on not only attracting a younger audience but convincing those readers of the value of a news subscription.

To understand how to target this crucial readership, we (the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, WAtoday, and Brisbane Times) needed to understand what they wanted. So, we asked.

Why aren’t they paying?

The importance of this audience became clear through a research project conducted by our audience insights team called “Why Not Pay.” The project highlighted that it was younger readers who were the biggest cohort of those open to pay for news, but failing to convert.

The “Why Not Pay” research showed that, on average, young people had 14 barriers to paying for a subscription to one of the Metro mastheads. There were more than 133 barriers, and none of them necessarily stood out. While it wasn’t the result we were expecting, it showed the audience had multiple, highly individualised barriers to paying — and eliminating just one or two barriers would be unlikely to drive a shift in conversion.

However, while the reasons were diverse, there were common themes. For our brands, these included showcasing the breadth of what we do, demonstrating value, experimenting with story formats, and improving distribution.

A total of 133 barriers were identified for young people.
A total of 133 barriers were identified for young people.

A working group is born

When we shared this information with editors, a working group was suggested to coincide with our “Minds Wide Open” brand campaign (a 2022 Global Media Award finalist). This campaign championed the reasons to pay for our journalism, particularly to younger readers. Executive Editor Tory Maguire asked the group to tackle the key themes of the “Why Not Pay” research and experiment with solutions. An invitation to the working group was open to staff in the age demographic we were trying to reach.

We ended up with more than 20 participants from around the newsroom, as well as members from our product, marketing, research, and sales teams.

After sharing the research insights with them, we jumped straight into a brainstorm. It was fairly open, but we had group members sort their ideas into short-, middle-, and long-term solutions.

From there, we had a vote where group members used chef kiss emojis to upvote their five favourite ideas. Then, we set about tackling the lowest hanging fruit.

The internal committee brainstormed a wide range of ideas for connecting with the identified audience.
The internal committee brainstormed a wide range of ideas for connecting with the identified audience.

It was clear from the very first session that our working group members knew what they wanted and were keen to share their views.

The group has since met fortnightly and welcomed new members as participants spread the word about how much they and the newsrooms were getting out of it. Topic editors from across the newsroom were invited to sessions to listen and learn.

Benefits of the working group

The working group has enabled younger team members to share their ideas and criticisms freely, and it encourages more open discussions. Editors are invited along to content-specific sessions to help brainstorm ideas at the conception and commissioning stages of planning.

This has led to low-risk experiments, and we can get immediate feedback on content and ideas from this target demographic. Importantly, we hear views from across the business and not just journalists.


One of the outcomes of this project is that the technology editor’s role was given a new focus to cover Internet culture. Additionally, an off-platform working group was established to develop a strong and attractive visual style for our brands on social media.

There is now active recruitment of younger and more diverse voices for our opinion articles, and we are doubling down on our TikTok offering.

Growth content editor

The future subscribers working group provided so many insights, ideas, and feedback that it became clear there was a role for someone to use its findings and recommendations to drive an ambitious strategy to grow our audience and tailor our content and its distribution to meet the needs of younger audiences. Sophia Phan, The Sydney Morning Herald’s deputy digital editor, became our growth content editor. Australia’s recent federal election was an example of how her role and the working group now help shape our coverage.

The working group provided input into how the recent federal election was covered.
The working group provided input into how the recent federal election was covered.

Working group in action

In sessions in the lead up to the election, the group discussed what they wanted from news coverage. Phan was an integral part of our mastheads’ election planning, commissioning, and strategy. Many of the group’s recommendations were brought to fruition, including:

  • Explainers on our voting and political system.
  • A visual style specific for election stories on social media platforms.
  • An insight into the journalists covering the election.
  • Specific polling of young voters.

The future subscribers working group continues to grow in size and influence in our newsrooms. New members have joined, and editors actively seek out the group’s advice and feedback. By listening to the younger voices that intimately know our journalism, we have been able to produce and share content that is authentic to our brands while tailored to the needs of a younger audience who will be our future subscribers.

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