New tech, websites to support 'simplified' Fairfax products

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New publishing technology is part of Fairfax Media's plans for its metro daily newsmedia mastheads.

Chief executive Greg Hywood says plans to secure the futures of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and business daily the Australian Financial Review include investment in product development, journalism and content. A "commercially successful print proposition, in line with consumer and advertiser demands" is also still in the programme.

Hywood says processes and teams will be reorganised, and undisclosed "new, simplified technology" will operate at a fraction of the cost of maintaining legacy systems.

Having cut heavily into its traditional workforce to generate $30 million of annual savings, the group has been quietly recruiting, building a commercial innovation team and establishing new specialist roles.

The new hires include content and category directors and a new approach to working with agency clients, something which the company hopes will wean them off programmatic advertising.

In Australia's third-largest city of Brisbane - where Fairfax does not have a daily print masthead - the brisbanetimes.com.au website is being used as a test bed for new ideas.

Topic tags - and a new panel of key facts from stories which are expected to become talking points - are part of a simplified design with fewer distractions and a greatly-reduced number of ad formats, about to launch.

Fundamental is the desire to get readers and advertisers to refresh their thinking about premium publishers as an alternative to Facebook.

Financial results last week showed the keeping the metro division's costs "under control" - down by 12 per cent in the year - contributed to a 26 per cent increase in EBITDA to $49 million. Metro mastheads continued to grow, with 21 per cent digital subscription revenue growth claimed. The division includes digital products such as HuffPost - combining local and global content - and the Allure Media portfolio.

A drastically-different Fairfax could be taking shape before the end of this year, by which time Hywood says real estate portal Domain will be a separate ASX-listed entity, of which Fairfax will hold only 60 per cent.

What's left will be a high-value, broadly-based, digital-rich business of powerful information brands, marketplaces and entertainment assets, he says. "Our valuable networks are trusted by our readers and advertisers and known for quality content in this era of 'fake news'."

Monetising its audiences with a variety of business models has seen the digital share of group revenue rise to 25 per cent. Hywood says further commercial benefits are also expected from "cash-generating" regional and community newspapers in Australia. The same is true of New Zealand - where digital revenue grew 29 per cent as Stuff.co.nz's audience increased 11 per cent to 2.1 million, and Neighbourly reached 810,000 a month - although Fairfax is still fighting the blocking of its merger with NZME.

Peter Coleman

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