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How Australian news publishers are future-proofing for younger audiences

The Australian news media industry is thriving. Readership is up with Total News commanding a whopping audience of 20.5 million Australians over the age of 14 as Australian news brands continue to drive the national agenda.

Yet, a narrative about the decline of news persists. Sam Weir, Editor of Melbourne’s Herald Sun reckons this is a hangover from years gone by.

Speaking at ThinkNewsBrands’ Meet the Editors event, he said: “If you'd asked me five or six years ago, I probably would have been a bit worried about the future of the media industry. But I'm not now. Our numbers are all going up, whether that's subscription or digital subscription numbers. As a company, we're about to hit a million digital subscribers. Think about that. How many years ago, the prevailing thought was no one will ever pay for news online.”

That time has well and truly passed as Editor in Chief of The Australian Financial Review Michael Stutchbury, speaking at the Sydney Meet the Editors event, noted. He said: “There was a time when it was said that everything was about search. People just searched and there was no such thing as a ‘brand’. That was one of the mantras around at the time. That information wanted to be free and no one would pay for it.

“Of course, people now pay for their subscriptions. That was a real change that came around with fake news. People are time poor. They want reliable news. They want credible news and they're prepared to pay for it. If you can deliver that to them, then you can build an audience.”

Similarly, Michelle Gunn, Editor of The Australian, was keen to, “puncture that narrative about people not being prepared to pay for news. They absolutely are. And there's never been a more important time to have premium news products.”

Part of the issue, according to Anthony De Ceglie, Editor in Chief of West Australian Newspapers, is that newspapers are too busy sharing the news to share their own news. De Ceglie said: “Traditionally newspapers have not done a good job of selling themselves. We haven't done enough talking about how the newspaper industry is a disruptor.”

De Ceglie cites the example of The Australian’s Hedley Thomas who won a the most prestigious award in journalism, a Gold Walkley, for his podcast The Teacher’s Pet that investigated the 1970s disappearance of Lynette Dawson and saw the case reopened decades later. The idea of a newspaper winning an award for a podcast takes a moment to process but it’s a hallmark of the way these businesses are changing to cater to audiences today and into the future.

The focus is now switching to the audiences of tomorrow to ensure they can engage with news in ways that suit their lifestyle. 

Readership data shows nine in 10 under 40s engage with news every month. Of that, 97 per cent of 25-to-39-year-olds are reading news and 91 per cent of 14-to-24-year-olds engage with news on a monthly basis.

Of the 20.5 million Australians that read news every month, 41 per cent of that audience is under 40 and each week, news engages more Australians under 40 than any other channel, including Facebook. While printed news consumption is on the rise for this cohort with dwell time increasing from 62 minutes in 2020 to 88 minutes in 2022.

Tory Maguire, Executive Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, recognises the potential of tapping into this audience. She said: “That's a huge challenge for us – engaging that audience who gets a lot of their news and views from TikTok, and Instagram. We have put a huge amount of resources into engaging that audience.”

For Nine, this means finding ways to repackage the journalism the brands are already producing.

Maguire said: “So not doing special journalism for young people, but making sure we wring every drop of value out of every story that we do, across all platforms, and all formats for all audiences. The idea is to form habits among that cohort.”

This sees The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald breaking news into bite sized pieces for social platforms and investing in the off-platform extensions of these great mastheads.

News Corp has taken a different approach with the launch of The Oz. The publication describes itself as “a news environment for younger Australians that assesses all angles, has difficult conversations and stays curious, while sharing The Australian's fearless journalism and news values”.

With the aim to “provide a platform for voices in society that are not being heard”, The Oz launched in April headed up by Elyse Popplewell, who was previously overseeing The Australian’s presence on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Over in the west, The West Australian is future proofing with a heavy adoption of live streaming that drove massive audiences for the platform during Covid. From streamed press conferences to working with partners to live stream cultural events, these innovations are proof that Australia’s news media has moved well beyond the printed newspaper.

De Ceglie says, “That's a disruption service that we have created from this beautiful thing called thewest.com.au, which we can do anything with.”

The future looks bright for news and the new audiences discovering the brands older Australians have trusted for years. The Herald Sun’s Weir certainly thinks so noting: “All the numbers are ticking up. It's a success story.”

To find out more about how younger audiences are engaging with news, check out The Youth Chapter here.

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