Three platforms, three awards
NEVER before has a masthead taken home trophies across three platforms at the PANPA Newspaper of the Year Awards, but the Newcastle Herald managed it through a combination of innovation and daring.
The masthead managed to scoop the trifecta of categories this year: 25,000-90,000 Newspaper of the Year, News Destination – Website, and News Destination – Mobile Site or App.
The unprecedented awards haul tied in with a busy year for the regional centre, 162km north of Sydney, which included a State Commission into child sexual abuse, the discovery of massive environmental negligence by a coal giant, and a stellar season by the local rugby league team with a charge to the semi-finals.
At the heart of all these events were the Newcastle Herald’s journalists and a team behind the scenes working to present the news in the best way possible.
“Local, local, local, is the mantra,” Newcastle Herald news director Heath Harrison says.
“It’s absolutely local, quality journalism that is our reason for being; to serve the local community, and keep them informed.”
What has made the Newcastle Herald so successful is the way it has been keeping to its ideals, while harvesting the potential of new platforms.
Mr Harrison said the newspaper, website, tablet app and m-site each had their specific uses.
“They do have their own personalities,” he says.
“But the online product is still very reliant on what’s coming out of the paper.
“It’s a challenge for us to try and pick at new ways we can make what we offer online less reliant on the paper, and we can give it its own identity.”
And in making it a distinct entity, they have had more than some level of success.
In September, the website hit the five million page view milestone, more than doubling from the same period last year. It also had twice as many unique browsers at 562,000 – a number greater than the most recent census figure for the population of Newcastle.
According to online editor Eve Nesmith that jump comes from the masthead doing its best to make its online site the only place that Hunter residents come to as their first point of information.
“Online is being first and accurate,” she says.
“If there’s smoke out the window, we want people to know they can log onto theherald.com. au and know where that smoke is coming from.”
As of this year, the masthead has even begun to live stream local sport through its website with the help of a local media company called BLive.
It began as a one-off event in February, when Newcastle’s annual surfing competition Surfest was moved from a beach into the harbour because of a monster swell.
“We captured this historic event – an international surfing competition in the middle of the world’s largest coal port and we had it live streamed,” she said.
It’s a challenge for us to try and pick at new ways we can make what we offer online less reliant on the paper, and we can give it its own identity’
“It gave us a taste for it, and gave our audience a taste for it.”
Since then it has streamed a game of the local rugby league competition each week, with the grand final most recently drawing 5000 unique browsers.
The masthead also has established a page for its sporting teams, dubbed the “Red and Blue HQ”. It is designed to be the first place Novocastrians come to for information on NRL team Newcastle Knights and A-League team Newcastle Jets.
It also is in the process of building a microsite, a website within a website, to host all of the content created around the Royal Commission on child sex abuse. It will host all the news, opinions and multimedia content created around the hot-button issue.
The drive for stickier content came from the desire to become the first and only point of information for the Hunter, and social media has helped capitalise on that, engagement editor Simon Walker says.
Mr Walker’s role derives from that of the traditional letters’ editor, with added responsibilities.
He will still go through the letters of old and contact those he considers worthy for publishing. Now, he uploads them and gives people a chance to directly respond online.
He also sifts through upwards of 500 online comments a day and harvests the best for the letters’ page, and a few will emerge as potential story ideas.
Mr Walker says giving readers a voice was imperative to keeping them engaged.
“Just as the letters’ page opens up a debate about any of the issues [ happening] on any particular day, with the online website, the ability to get involved in the debate has widened exponentially,” he says.
Herald sales director Craig Lambert says part of what makes the Newcastle’s community engagement successful is how connected its people are in the community. He says his salespeople are no different.
“Newcastle hasn’t been immune to economic difficulties, but it’s also well placed to overcome some of these,” Mr Lambert says.
“I want our sales people to be out and about, to be part of the community and really understand the issues that affect them.”
He has encouraged his sales team not to focus on selling a particular platform, but rather selling the engagement that the newspaper has with its audience.
“We don’t say here’s the print bit and here’s the digital bit, we say ‘ here’s the solution’,” Mr Lambert says.
General manager of the Newcastle site Jason King puts the paper’s success down to two things: the community spirit, and the innovation of its staff.
Mr King says the team has to be willing to take risks and push new boundaries, but also be resilient.
“I’m a risk-taker, [editor] Chad [Watson]’s a bit of a risk taker, [sales director] Craig [Lambert] loves a bit of a risk as well, but it’s a calculated risk,” Mr King said.
“We have to be allowing our team to fail as long as they’ve got their heart in the right place and they’re trying to achieve a positive outcome.”
The risks have paid off in abundance for the Newcastle Herald. As well as the hat trick of PANPA awards, the masthead is in the Walkley Awards mix with a number of nominations, has had some of its stories go viral and much more.
Editor Chad Watson also pins the paper’s success on its commitment to its community.
“It’s no longer enough to set the agenda, you have to drive it and that’s what we strive to do every day,” Mr Watson says.
“We call ourselves the Voice of the Hunter, and with that comes great responsibility.
“It helps, of course, if you love what you do, why you do it and who you do it for.”
Editor Chad Watson (rear centre, black tie) with the staff of the Newcastle Herald with their three trophies