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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

MediaApril 29, 2023

Inside Stuff’s bold, unconventional new paywall plan

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

On a new episode of NZ media podcast The Fold, Duncan Greive speaks with Jo Norris, architect of the regional-first paywall sites launched by Stuff today.

This is a huge, historic moment for Stuff as an organisation, which has roots that stretch back more than 150 years in this country, and has always, up to this point, charged for access to its regional journalism – so long as that was delivered through print formats. Now it’s doing the same for digital formats. It’s late to the paywall party – the big international news media are as much as a decade down this road, and even locally that the Herald is four years ahead. 

The design is unconventional. The easiest, most obvious move would have been to paywall Stuff, but instead they’ve elected to launch three new sites, one each for The Press, The Waikato Times and The Post (formerly known as the Dominion Post). This conversation, adapted from my podcast The Fold, really is about drilling into the fine detail of how this will operate, and the thinking is that drove it.

Jo Norris is a former editor of The Press, and started her career in journalism at The Dominion, so knows well the deep relationship between a regionally defined publication and the community which it serves. Given the challenges facing journalism – particularly regional journalism – in this era, I think you have to admire anyone who’s taking such a bold and differentiated swing. 

Follow The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

This conversation has been edited and refined for clarity and brevity.

Duncan Greive: Tell me what you announced [on Thursday] night at parliament…

Jo Norris: For more than a year, we’ve been really thinking through how we want to continue to connect with our subscribers across the country in a way that’s really relevant to them. And so yesterday, we announced that we will be launching digital mastheads for some of our really strong heritage publications – the newspapers that are really beloved by our readers and subscribers across the country. That means digital mastheads for The Press, which is obviously a really strong South Island publication, for the Waikato Times, which covers Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, and for The Post, which is the new name for the paper of the capital, formerly known as the Dominion Post.

You’re relatively late to the paywall concept. Why was it that it took you so long to kind of get to this point? And what prompted this particular approach?

We were very careful, because we wanted to take an approach we knew would work for our existing audiences, and would help us maintain that really bold, spirited, and nationally relevant journalism that we publish every day on Stuff. And to make sure that continues to be as accessible to as many people as possible, including audiences that are not necessarily able to access paid content.

But we also wanted to make sure that we did have a different type of subscriber offering for our existing subscribers and those who want to subscribe to our products and to receive it in a format that’s relevant to them. So we looked very carefully at models around the world. We also looked at what was working locally, and what wasn’t working locally, and made sure that as we do this, we do that in a considered way. 

Thinking about The Post, you made reference to that gallery team, which is maybe the best in the country, and that coverage has been a real bedrock of the Stuff site. Is that now going to go behind the paywall of The Post? How will you manage the kind of complexities of the sort of national versus Wellington specificity of that group?

Obviously, Stuff has been going for more than 20 years, we’ve got really deep insights into our audience and the kind of content our audience expects. And what that allows us to do is to start to understand the type of political content that the Stuff audience wants to consume, and then the type of content that will work in a more lean-back format, which will be our print edition and our digital edition of The Post. So you’ll see deeper analysis, that content you want to read on a second day of the story that’s broken during the previous day. 

One of the examples I’ve been using in the last couple of days is Wednesday’s midday press conference around tax reform. Obviously that will be published immediately on Stuff with our team of gallery reporters covering it. The next day, our readers expect to understand more context, more analysis and have an opportunity to to review some of the content that they perhaps didn’t have time to read during the day.

The pricing structure puts you above the New Zealand Herald’s offering. What makes you confident that you can achieve that premium? Especially in the Waikato, with a big crossover with the goliath up the motorway?

Yeah, we’re really competitive in that particular market. The Waikato Times outperforms the Herald and the Waikato market, because it produces content that’s relevant to Waikato people. We have a number of national platforms operating in New Zealand, that all compete with one another, some free, some paid. But in the markets where we have existing subscriber bases, we are very, very strong. 

How crucial is this to Stuffs future – not just the launch of it, not just the symbolism of it, but the actual financial success of it to the future of this company?

Look, I really love this question. This is a really important part of our strategy. We have always known that we would want to at some point move to have this option available to subscribers. And we have a mix of revenue, which means that we are a longterm sustainable company. But it’s important that we do continue to diversify, and that we grow our revenue from digital subscribers.

One of the things the Herald does is use its front page as a sales tool to push traffic, not just to Premium, but also sub-brands like Viva and OneRoof. If you’re a full noise subscriber, will you ultimately be able to use the Stuff homepage to navigate towards the big stories on the regional sites?

Our user journeys will be different from our competitors. That’s partly because we didn’t want that dynamic where you have a site that becomes one thing in front of the wall and another behind the wall, it can be quite confusing for users. So we’ve deliberately made these separate sites with different experiences. I think that takes away some of the schizophrenia that can occur in front of a paywall, when you’re trying to do both jobs with one site.

Are you concerned about creating new behavior patterns? We’ve come out of an era where distribution was a relatively solved problem. If you’re not using Stuff to prompt to particular stories, as opposed to the broad brand messaging, are you at all concerned about trying to create new behaviour patterns?

There’s always a leap of faith when you launch a new experience for people. But keeping in mind, these are not new brands. So these people have had a relationship with these brands for more than 160 years. There is no bigger brand in Christchurch, or the South Island, than The Press – it’s very deeply understood. So there’s no awareness problem that we’re trying to tackle here. It’s just simply encouraging people to follow a slightly different user journey. 

Are these brand new websites? Or do they have a relationship to the kind of current Stuff platform in terms of the look and feel?

Brand new websites with a new look and feel. And we’re really looking forward to people seeing them for the first time.

There are a bunch of major regional newspapers which aren’t captured by the big three that you’ve singled out. I saw Tim Murphy saying that they were going to sort of be rebranded as, say, ‘Southland Stuff’. What is happening to those publications in print and digital formats?

Our print formats are unchanged. We’re still thinking through the phasing of the rollout of further products. And we will let people know as soon as we’re able to talk to them about the timing of further rollouts, but you’re very much looking at some further announcements over the next few months. So it’s possible that there might actually be further regionalised brands to roll out attached to some of those historic mastheads.

How much consideration was given to putting a paywall around Stuff itself? 

We looked at all of the options. And as you say, there is a model that exists internationally. But internationally, there are also other really successful models around digital subscriptions for even very, very small regional communities, which work really effectively because people value the very specific niche content that is within those products. So that’s the option we opted for. We put a lot of thought into all of the alternatives. And we continue to – we’ve been quite clear, we never say never around a paywall for Stuff, but it’s certainly not within our consideration at this point.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

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