Sydney Morning Herald, Age establish dedicated premium content team

By Chris Paine

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

Australia

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As we move through the pandemic and beyond, our mission at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age remains as important and vital as ever.

The role of journalism is essential to a thriving democracy. For a 21st century audience inundated with so many options, some riven with misinformation, we are committed to delivering the best stories our readers deserve to know while remaining steadfast in our goal to attract new audiences.

Premium content comes in many formats, including long-form explainer articles and specialty documentaries, like this 17-minute production about AC/DC.
Premium content comes in many formats, including long-form explainer articles and specialty documentaries, like this 17-minute production about AC/DC.

We will remain focussed and evolve by constantly asking ourselves difficult questions about how we present our journalism and prove our value.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that things change every day. We must be prepared to adapt to those changes and be excited about what’s to come.

Role of premium content in satisfying audiences

In November, the premium content team was established across the Herald and Age.

The aim and purpose of this team, and my role, is simple: Bring premium and innovative elements of storytelling into the centre of our newsrooms with the goal of delivering as much value as possible to subscribers and to demonstrate that value to future subscribers.

There is so much exciting work to do and many opportunities in front of us to enhance and showcase the wonderful stories produced every day by our journalists.

Premium content, and its role in satisfying audiences, is anything from a high-concept visual story involving Web developers, designers, data journalists, and editors, to a bold illustration and thought-provoking headline. It can be a 17-minute documentary about AC/DC that finds a huge audience on YouTube or an explainer on cicadas that’s published at a time when our highly engaged app audience is most active.

What’s worth paying for as a subscriber?

To produce premium content is to treat our audiences with the respect of being prepared to pay for our journalism. Good journalism takes time and, therefore, money. Our subscribers know this, but it’s not something to be taken for granted nor preached about. Rather, it’s incumbent upon us to prove the value of what we deliver in return.

We need to consistently signal why our content is worth paying for. That’s not just in special projects commissioned a handful of times a year, but in small and meaningful ideas that contribute to the reader experience.

Our visual stories team has built a presentation hub that can be accessed by every single journalist and editor. It’s a tool that significantly improves the quality of how we present our journalism on a daily basis. It includes impactful visual tools such as timelines, quizzes, embeddable charts, galleries, image quotes, images sliders, and the ability to embed audio clips and lengthy documents. Enhancing content on a daily basis matters just as much as big, broad visual features.

The premium content team covers four key areas:

  • Video and audio (including podcasts).
  • Presentation (graphics, visual stories team, and illustrations).
  • Explainers.
  • Data journalism.

There’s a lot of variation between the teams, but among them is a core, unifying principle: to turbo-charge the journalism undertaken by the Herald and Age.

What does that look like in practice?

Our goal in 2022 is to be strategic about how we utilise these teams and their many talents to tell great stories that engage our readers and show prospective subscribers why we’re worth paying for.

Those strategic decisions begin with every news conference: How can we elevate stories in the daily news cycle? How can we zoom out and take a deeper look at an issue as an explainer? How do we mobilise the visual stories team to create a compelling experience for readers that engages, informs, and surprises them?

The most important question we can ask in the process is this: Is this solving a problem for the audience? A lot of factors go into determining the value of good journalism, and decisions are made by a team of experienced editors. In terms of satisfying audiences with premium content, the audience is at the forefront of my mind.

We also talk frequently about “reader service,” particularly when commissioning an explainer, data analysis, or digital interactive. If we’re providing a reader service, then we’re providing readers with a reason to trust us. It can be as deep and complex as spending months poring over electoral data and presenting it with a bespoke interactive that tells each person reading that story something about themselves, their postcode, their seat or local member, and their neighbours.

Or it can be as simple as our interstate travel planner that we built in December to help readers navigate the myriad (and frequently) changing requirements of each state and territory government when travelling interstate. The concept and the delivery were both simple enough: If I’m travelling from one state to another to reunite with my family or friends for Christmas, what documentation and tests will I need before I hop on a plane?

The goal for our mastheads is to constantly challenge ourselves and our readers with how we tell stories and where we tell them. Of course, a lot of this work revolves around new and emerging platforms, social media, and distribution models. But just as much of that work begins on the pages of the Herald and Age.

About Chris Paine

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