Seeking out loyal readers at Fairfax's flagship site

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The "split personality" of one of Australia's best-known news websites, smh.com.au was just one of the problems that needed fixing when Jess Ross joined Fairfax Media in 2016.

"The search for reach had put stories on the home page which would never found their way into the print edition," she says.

What she calls "reach at any cost" had been sucking resources, without making an adequate contribution towards the $110 million a year the Australian media group spends on journalism, and a focus on the minority of loyal readers who were chipping in 50 per cent of revenue.

Much of that has changed following the birth of "product vision", a focus on "news worth seeking", and the huge upheaval needed to deliver it.

Ross, who is chief product officer, had already presented a day-long workshop ahead of Digital Media Asia in Hong Kong, and summarised it for conference delegates.

Research had indicated readers need for cut-through - "they're looking for what's important" - mastery of a range of subjects, inspiration and escape, and a sense of belonging.

"We reinvented digital news to make it more valuable to people," she says, pointing out that when you've been publishing newspapers for more than 180 years, nobody asks questions like 'why do people read news', "even rhetorically".

A substantial investment on technical infrastructure, content management technology, and a realtime data pipeline have been part of the programme. And "no going back".

One of the changes has been the "let the content breathe", while a shortlist enables users to work through items of importance to them via a variety of devices. A "serendipity zone" provides lighter content, and curated "collections" offer sets of topics and multi-part investigations for premium subscribers, while commenting has also been made more visible. Another has been an "ad overhaul" to provide a more flexible rich media experience.

The response hasn't been a big increase in reach - but that wasn't expected; what's happened is a huge increase in loyalty: "We're really hitting it," she says.

And audience satisfaction: No more clickbait or ads getting in the way, with 20 perecent acknowledging the high quality content and reporting standards.

"Above all, more are buying into the paywaall, and we have a bigger pool of subscription prospects," says Ross. "Like our news, it was worth seeking out."

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