It was just before 11am on April 30. I was with our technology team, on the phone to our partners at the Washington Post. We were about to flick the switch to turn on the Premium digital subscriptions initiative.
With me was the Herald team that had worked over several months to deliver the project. It would be fair to say we were a bundle of very excited nerves.
This was a big, complex technology, customer and audience project - to introduce a paywall to the New Zealand Herald site for some of our stories, and to set up a new digital ordering and billing system which would speak to our newspaper systems, were just some of the many challenges.
We had worked incredibly hard in those previous weeks and days - I'd had my share of sleep-disrupted nights and we'd worked late into the previous night to ensure we would be giving our audience a first-class experience – worth paying for!
Our audiences knew the digital subscriptions initiative was launching, but we had deliberately not publicised the specific date or time of launch. Failing to deliver on something you so publicly promise doesn't end well for anyone.
While we were utterly certain of our content offering, our value proposition and that this was overwhelmingly the right thing for journalism, we were NZ's first major news outlet to make this move. There is always that nagging worry, what if our audience doesn't come with us?
Nerves soon gave way to jubilation, with no last-minute hiccups, we made the call to go.
Within moments, those beautiful golden "Premium" markers began appearing on the home page of nzherald.co.nz. There was a cheer and applause in our newsroom - and then within minutes the subscriptions started rolling in the door.
We couldn't stop staring at our data. First dozens of subscriptions were flowing in, then hundreds and now, thousands.
It was an incredibly humbling experience, so utterly validating for journalism.
I looked back at my calendar to prepare for this speech. At 11am on April 30, the entry read: "Premium Content launch stage 2 - timings and bridge open."
In hindsight, it sounds nowhere near exciting enough to reflect a monumental moment in the Herald's 156-year history - that entry will definitely need to be edited.
WHY DID WE DECIDE ON THIS COURSE OF ACTION?
Anyone with half an eye on our industry knows the position journalists and media companies are in the world over. With the massive defection of advertising dollars to tech giants like Facebook and Google, one of our traditional revenue streams is no longer in the shape it once was.
Additional revenue streams have to be found to support and sustain journalism into the future. Sadly, there are few billionaires doing what Jeff Bezos is doing at the Washington Post.
The irony for me is, that at a time when journalism faces its biggest challenges, it has never been more vital to tell the stories that matter.
We live in complex and challenging times. It is our job to help our audiences navigate those times and combat the spread of misinformation that proliferates across many social media platforms.
I am convinced that the need for truth, for accuracy, for explainer and solutions journalism has never been greater.
As a 30-year veteran of the industry it has been, in my view, a mistake for media companies to give away our valuable content for free online. Important stories which take a lot of time, energy and investment and which our wonderfully loyal audiences have been paying for in the shape of their daily newspapers.
You will know too, that we are following a global trend of media companies introducing digital subscriptions. The likes of the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Times of London - all these prestigious mastheads have adopted some form of paywall, some have been operating for several years.
We decided to introduce a Premium model at the Herald to support a two-pronged strategy. We wanted to keep most of our content free for our large and incredibly loyal audience. At the same time believing our very best journalism deserved a Premium.
And not just our work either - we’ve partnered with the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Harvard Business Review and The Times of London, and renewed our commitments with the Washington Post, Daily Telegraph UK and South China Morning Post.
As global citizens, our Kiwi audiences want to know what is happening as much in the world as they do at home.
WHAT IS PREMIUM CONTENT?
Simply, it’s exclusive, unique, quality journalism.
It’s smart writing, in-depth analysis, thought-provoking commentary and ground-breaking investigative work. It is words, pictures, video, graphics, cartoons, podcasts, documentaries.
Premium journalism applies across business, politics, news, sport, lifestyle and entertainment.
It’s from the main centres and regional New Zealand. It's from Washington to Wellington, London to Lumsden. It’s new voices, more diverse opinion, and journalism that explains and offers solutions.
As recent examples, our Fair Care health series has lifted the lid on injustices in the health system.
We’ve revealed police have written off reported sex offences as ‘no crime’
We uncovered the contents of a report alleging a serious bullying incident involving a senior Government minister.
We exposed a cover-up involving a paedophile Catholic priest; and we travelled to southeast Asia to highlight the exploitation and trafficking of young women and children.
For the past 156 years, the New Zealand Herald has held true to our guiding principles:
- Speaking truth to power
- Giving a voice to those who need help
- Making a difference for countless New Zealanders
- We’ve informed, exposed, campaigned, and entertained
- We’ve celebrated our greatest days and we’ve mourned our worst
Our Premium strategy is bold, exciting and nerve-wracking, but overwhelmingly it’s the right thing to do to allow quality journalism to survive and thrive.
I firmly believe charging a small price for our best digital journalism will help sustain the NZ Herald for another 150 years.
And we could not be happier with our stellar start. Six weeks in, we announced that we had hit our annual subscription target.
We had 10,000 new digital subscribers on board and in the six weeks since, that number continues to climb. Again, it is incredibly validating for our work, and our newsrooms are energised by the support.
Of course, our Premium audience is far larger than that too. It was important to us that our print subscribers could access the digital content. So, anyone with a five-day plus newspaper subscription gets access to Premium as part of their deal.
We are particularly pleased that more than a third of our new digital audience has chosen to take an annual subscription - their support for our journalism is phenomenal.
The digital play is also proving beneficial and invigorating for our newspapers, with many customers choosing a digital and print bundle, accessing our premium content online and supplementing that with, say weekend newspapers.
Subscriptions are coming from all types of content - news, politics, sport, business, lifestyle and entertainment. But, as we knew they would, politics and business are proving particularly important. In fact, in those first six weeks - four of the top 10 converting stories involved politics.
Our audience cannot get enough of the unique insight and analysis from our crack Parliamentary squad.
Our other heartening discovery is around subscriber engagement.
As a former newspaper editor, I would put blood, sweat and tears into creating the best possible product for our audience. While you knew how many (newspaper) copies you sold, you never knew exactly which stories were being read.
Now our data shows us our readers' preferences. We know which stories are converting subscriptions, and which stories our readers are spending time with.
Our Premium subscribers are an incredibly engaged and committed audience. I'm pleased to share with you that they spend, on average 3-4 times longer on the site than our non-subscribers.
That is incredibly heartening, as it means that they are finding plenty to keep them interested.
So, we are thrilled with our start. But, as I am fond of telling my bosses - this is a marathon, not a sprint.
We need to keep telling the stories that matter and keep evolving our strategy. Excitingly, we have plenty more opportunities in this brave new world. Including our corporate and group offers and developing new content offerings.
We at the Herald are proud to be leading the way with our Premium content initiative.
And from a personal point of view, I am thrilled to be part of what is undoubtedly the most significant step-change for journalism in New Zealand.