EP 18 – The State of Australian Media With Danielle Cronin

    Fact checked by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and… Read more

    Edited by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and…Read more

    DanielleCronin BT

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and...Read more

    Danielle Cronin is editor of the Brisbane Times, who is leading the Fairfax Brisbane team in their local and regional journalism efforts in Queensland, Australia. In this episode, we caught up with Danielle to about her career to date (particularly her time at the Press Gallery), how Brisbane Times became a market leader in Queensland and, the overall state of Australian media.



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    Podcast Transcription

    Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing podcast. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication and community providing resources, perspectives, collaboration, and news for digital media and publishing professionals in new media and technology. Our aim is to help industry professionals get more time back to work on what really matters -monetizing content and growing reader relationships.
    Vahe Arabian: In this episode, I speak with Danielle Cronin. She’s Fairfax Media’s Brisbane Times editor. She also covered the Australian press gallery, so the political coverage in Australian media. And we speak now about the state of Australian media and Brisbane. Let’s begin. Hi, Danielle. How are you?
    Danielle Cronin: Great, thank you. Thank you for having me on your podcast.
    Vahe Arabian: I appreciate it as well. I know you’ve been covering the Commonwealth Games and there have been a few other things happening in Brisbane lately, so how’s that going?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it’s been quite an interesting time. There’s been a bit of controversy over the opening and closing ceremonies. There’s also been some real highlights as well, including the para-athletes in the main program of the games has been amazing. I really enjoyed watching that. So, yeah, hectic but fun.
    Vahe Arabian: My audience is usually international and I’m from Sydney, so I’m very stoked to have someone from Australia. Danielle’s from Brisbane for everyone who’s listening. So if I can just pass it over to you, Danielle, if you can just provide a bit of background about you and where you are at the moment. That’d be great.
    Danielle Cronin: Fantastic. So Danielle Cronin, I’m editor of the Brisbane Times. I guess I was infected with the journalism bug as a 14-year-old when I had work experience with the local community paper. I wrote my first front page and was sort of hooked from then. And it’s been a career which I’ve practiced in regional areas, capital cities and a little bit of overseas.
    Vahe Arabian: I guess people who start in journalism in Australia, usually staff go to the outback. Usually, they go to regionals so that they can then build their profile and get more senior opportunities in the city. Is that correct? Is that how it usually works?
    Danielle Cronin: It does. So after I graduated from uni, I started at a paper at a city west of Brisbane, which was my first foray into paid journalism. And then I did go country for a little while. I’m definitely a city girl, so it was a fantastic learning experience. I got to do stories if I was on a bigger masthead or a metro masthead it might have taken me years to be able to do. So that was a great learning curve. And then from there, I went to the national capital. So that was a big change.
    Vahe Arabian: Before we go into that, what’s your current role look like now and how are you set up? And how is your team set up at the moment?
    Danielle Cronin: So at the moment, Brisbane Times is quite a unique proposition. So 11 years ago it was an extraordinary move for a major news company to launch a standalone digital news site. And I say that for two reasons. Like at the time most online news sites were digital incarnations of an existing paper. And Fairfax doesn’t have a paper in Brisbane.
    Danielle Cronin: And it was launched in a market where News Corp has a metro monopoly, and Fairfax doesn’t have the legacy like it does in Sydney and Melbourne. So it’s pretty exciting to be at the forefront of building that legacy in Brisbane, particularly Southeast Queensland. And more recently we launched the new masthead for metro sites, which is very modern, faster, cleaner, more immersive. So that is also exciting.
    Danielle Cronin: In terms of our newsroom, we’re in the Brisbane CBD. We have 15 staff. Reporters, producers, a person responsible for off-platform publishing such as social and newsletters. And me. We have a couple of regular columnists who are celebrated authors in their own right, John Birmingham, and Madonna King. We operate seven days a week. About 50% of our readers are younger than 44. But, interestingly, one in five of our readers are in the 65 plus age group, which is great. And that’s pretty much, in a nutshell, Brisbane Times. The cheat sheet.
    Vahe Arabian: That’s a very good summary. And your role is managing. Besides the off platform, what is your other roles and responsibilities?
    Danielle Cronin: So in terms of me, I manage the team, the website, the off-platform like newsletters, social media, any other areas we want to experiment in. And then I’m also the point of contact for Fairfax in Queensland. So my role involves communicating with the other metro masthead newsrooms. When there’s a big breaking story, we kind of lead the coverage and work with our colleagues around the country to get the best possible stories.
    Vahe Arabian: Nice. And I believe there used to be an editor-in-chief as well until he recently left. Is there no-one taking that position at the moment, or are you pretty much running that aspect of the role as well?
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, that aspect of the role falls on me. So it’s kind of an editor/news director role, which is fun. So maybe in more traditional newsrooms editors are kind of one step removed. But I’m kind of in the thick of it, which I enjoy.
    Vahe Arabian: I think it’s just getting hands on everything, it’s exciting for sure. So you alluded to the fact that you went to Canberra, the capital, and spent quite a bit of time there.
    Danielle Cronin: Yes.
    Vahe Arabian: So a lot of people who don’t know, usually people who go to Canberra usually cover political journalism and they are in the press gallery. So it’d be interesting to hear your experience and how you got into the press gallery and what that entailed.
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, no problem. So I guess it’s a lifelong love of politics. My early memories of watching election coverage with my grandfather. He was sort of this really gentle man who would become very shouty when the result failed to reflect his political leanings.
    Danielle Cronin: I spent several years in the federal press gallery and it was a pretty remarkable time. So I was thinking of some of the things that stuck in my mind, and it was a few conscience debates on therapeutic cloning and to strip the Health Minister of the power to deny women access to the so-called abortion drug, RU486. It was also the apologies to the stolen generations and former child migrants. And then I guess the icing on the cake was the coup against the first-time prime minister, swearing in of the first female prime minister, and a hung parliament.
    Danielle Cronin: So I kind of sat back and thought, oh, I can’t really top that. But little did I know that it was pretty much a front row seat of a new trend in Australian politics. Working in the press gallery itself, it’s fiercely competitive and demanding. But it’s really one of the best experiences available in journalism, particularly for those who are interested in politics.
    Vahe Arabian: So in terms working in the press gallery, is that having access to the lower house, the House of Representatives and the Senate, when you wanted to sit in and see what the politicians are speaking about? And then also having your own space there just to do reporting for Fairfax? How did that work? How does it set up working in the press gallery?
    Danielle Cronin: So you can go into the press gallery part of the chambers at any time. So typically something about the conscience debate that I was mentioning, I would sit in the Senate for that. I would go everyday to question time. So sit in the front row behind the speaker. And also then we would have an office in the press gallery itself, which is on the Senate side of Parliament House.
    Danielle Cronin: So at the time I was there there were six of us in that team and we would have some people focusing on particular policy areas and some people focusing on the politics. And people writing opinions and features and all those things.
    Vahe Arabian: Six people seems pretty large. Like is that because of how comprehensive the conversations are and the debates are in parliament? Or I know you said that you broke it up into different formats as well. That might be another reason why. Yeah, I’d be interested in that.
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it kind of fluctuates as well. So it was six at the time. We now have a Fairfax National Federal Political Bureau, so that includes reporters from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, whatnot, who work together. So it kind of depends on how busy parliament is. It depends on how much resources a particular masthead might have that they want to devote to federal politics.
    Danielle Cronin: When I worked for the Canberra Times, it was a pretty important part of our coverage because so many of the decisions made in the big house affected people directly in the community. Heavy readership of public servants, people that were involved in contracting to government. So that was at that time, and I guess as everything in the media these things sort of change. And sometimes you might have a smaller bureau, sometimes you might have a bigger one, just depending on how much you want to invest in covering it.
    Vahe Arabian: So I know that there’s the Canberra Times as well, which is the local Fairfax masthead there. Is there any reason why Fairfax decided not to just have all the federal politics coverage journalism just covered there, as opposed to having that overlap between the different states? Or do you see that having that overlap between the different states an advantage in just having your own unique coverage for your state?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, the Federal Political Bureau I think is great in the respect that it draws specialists and experts from around Fairfax metro mastheads. So we have one of the most respected economics correspondents in the country who works there. We have an amazing sketch writer. So they all bring unique and remarkable skills to the table.
    Danielle Cronin: So I understand why you would look for the best people throughout the group to try and bring together in a bureau so that you can play to your strengths. And Fairfax readers are really interested in federal politics, and they do a remarkable job down there.
    Vahe Arabian: Yeah, definitely. It is one of the most spoken about topics. So what would you say, in your experience there, what were some of the highlights and what were some of the challenges? I know you spoke about some of the key, like with the first female prime minister and some of rest that were some of the highlights, but what would you say is the best aspect for someone who wanted to get into political journalism? The best aspects of working for the press gallery specifically?
    Danielle Cronin: There are lots of them. You know, the ones that I mentioned. What an immense privilege to witness those key moments in Australian political history. There’s also the opportunity to meet and interview some remarkably smart people who are developing policy.
    Danielle Cronin: You get to see laws made. You get to see some of the theater of parliament in terms of question time. You get to meet some really interesting people and also you meet journalists from around the country. And you get to cover federal election campaigns which are very interesting and pose their own challenges. And particularly if you’re interested in politics, I think it’s probably a big gain for aspiring political journalists.
    Danielle Cronin: As you sort of think in terms of some of the challenges, it’s fiercely competitive and it’s definitely not a level playing field. So, for instance, the prime minister’s office might have a preferred masthead and no matter how hard you work and how many hours you put in, you just can’t break through in those areas. That’s a challenge. But it’s also a leveling field as well when you have things like estimates and federal budgets because that entirely relies on your ability to read, understand the document and ask the critical questions.
    Vahe Arabian: I understand. Are there any digital-only publications there that try to have access to the press gallery? Because digital-only publications do exist.
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, good question. I’m not sure who the current tenants are. The Guardian Australia has a bureau there. So I guess that’s one that I know off the top of my head. I’m not sure about others. But political journalism has changed a lot in recent years. Sort of servicing the web and coming up with a unique story to splash on the front of the paper makes it more complicated, but also more exciting. You can get stories out there in a heartbeat and then develop them through the day.
    Vahe Arabian: So developing them through the day with intel? Just having like followup stories around it or refreshing the existing article, is that what you’d consider as developing the story?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it could be a range of things. So it could be, for instance, your updating the story with reaction comments or you’ve got a fresh angle on it so you create another story to kind of build off that. You might chime in with some analysis if it’s a big story. Get one of your experts to write something, or an external expert to write something. So there’s all different ways that you can develop that through the day.
    Vahe Arabian: And are those some of the techniques that are being taught in Fairfax and Australian media, in general, to try to engage audiences and build rapport with audiences? Or how would you see that? If there’s like an ongoing story that’s taking place, how do you see the journalists and media professionals trying to develop that rapport with the audience to keep them up-to-date?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it depends on what the story is. So, for instance, if it’s something like a big cyclone or the tragic events of Dreamworld last year or the year before, you might consider a live blog. So that would keep people up-to-date in real time. If it’s something that’s not moving that quickly, then you might consider doing a first take and then fleshing that out and then leaving that for readers to comment and be engaged with, and then move on to look for a fresh angle for the next edition or the next big refresh.
    Danielle Cronin: So I think there’s a range of ways and I don’t think there’s sort of one size fits all. I think in a way the story kind of dictates the form that it should take.
    Vahe Arabian: In Australian media in particular, who makes that decision on whether or not it should be a live blog versus just being a refresh of the article, for example? Does that sit with you kind of with the Brisbane Times, or who makes that decision?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, if it’s a Queensland story then, yes, it rests with us. So we decide if it’s worth live blogging or not. And I’m sure it’s the same in other mastheads, that it’s made by senior members of the newsroom. Live blogs definitely have interesting … There’s interesting opportunities in live blogging, particularly when you’re dealing with a weather event.
    Danielle Cronin: Sometimes people will live blog a ceremony which might be a bit more kind of voicey than a traditional blog. But with weather events, really live blogging is very useful because you’re often interspersing pocket interviews with people on the scene with vital information that people need to know to keep themselves safe.
    Vahe Arabian: Okay. It’s just to be clear there’ll be a few people. Like let’s look at the Brisbane Times specifically. There’ll be a few people within your team that come up with the editorial decision. It doesn’t only rest with you. Is that correct?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, the final decision rests with me but we’re a very egalitarian newsroom so I’m open to all ideas from everyone.
    Vahe Arabian: Yeah, so how does that work? Like let’s say if a journalist or a content producer comes to you, has an idea and wants to come and put together something, how does that process work currently?
    Danielle Cronin: So are you talking in terms of live blogging or just in general?
    Vahe Arabian: Just in general, like if they have an idea and they think that it would be a good angle for the audience to read and consume. Like maybe you haven’t factored before?
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah. So if they’re working on a story, sometimes they’ll run past me some ideas they have. Sometimes I’ll commission particular angles that I think are worth pursuing. If someone comes up with an idea of something new that we could do, we look at the idea, we interrogate the pros and cons. Because ultimately you want to make sure that if you’re investing your time, it’s something that could be a potential benefit.
    Danielle Cronin: We definitely foster at the BT a culture of people having a go, trying things. But we always make sure that we celebrate those wins and if something fell short, then we look at why it fell short and have an honest feedback. Yes, definitely important, particularly in a digital space, to encourage every member of your team to come to you with any ideas they might have. Also, to use members of your team as sounding boards for particular ideas.
    Vahe Arabian: I know BT is more state level, and then there’s also the really local-level publications as well. I’ve been speaking to UK and US journalists and their look with regional journalism efforts. A lot of them have beat journalists, so they’ll go and dig up, for example, look through government data, find the commonality issue that’s happening in that state or region, and they’ll then do in-depth journalism.
    Vahe Arabian: Is that something similar that happens in Australia, do you think? Do you see that’d be something that can be done more in Australia? I see that happening more often in the UK and US than Australia.
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah. It’s very interesting, some of the stuff that’s being done in those countries, absolutely. At BT Brisbane Times particularly, we’re heavy users of open data, like government open data, so pretty much every member of my team at some point will use open data to either create an interesting angle on a story, or can be the story within itself. In terms of beats, so to speak, we definitely have people that are assigned to be breaking news reporters, but they also have special areas of interest as well.
    Danielle Cronin: So in those time when they’re not doing something like today, where we had a house fire, in which three people died. When they’re not doing those sort of stories, they can look at signed stories or data stories. We also have a dedicated state political reporter, so they cover state parliament. We also have an urban affairs reporter, and their job is to focus pretty much on Brisbane city council, which is actually the biggest council in Australia, so big job for her.
    Danielle Cronin: And then also, look at … one of those urban affairs stories, similar to the work that’s being done by City Lab, which is great. They look at how we live, why we live the way we do, how to make the city better, that sort of thing.
    Vahe Arabian: That’s interesting, so from what I can see that there’s more specialists focusing on local and regional issues, rather than looking specific topics of interest, I guess.
    Danielle Cronin: Yes, so we’ve sort of shaken it up a little bit. Coming from a newspaper background, you have a particular beat, and that’s what you focus on. My team all have a specific area of interest, so it might not be that you write three stories a day, every day. You cherry pick the best ones that you find, or the great, unique stories that you can do, and then they work on those.
    Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. How does community engagement currently play a factor in journalism for BT and across Fairfax?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it’s pretty critical, it was kind of one of the things that really underpinned the redesign of our new sites. There were so many players who set up in Australia, existing mastheads are doing well, so many people vying for attention, noisy, it’s crowded. I think readers, the true measure of success. This is something that astute mastheads and advertisers have pivoted away from page impressions as measure of success and are focusing more on the engagement with the work that we do, the quality of that engagement, and also the readability of the homepage or the article page.
    Vahe Arabian: In terms of the specialist reporters, you said the housing and urban was one, would they go and attend town hall events … not town hall, that’s more of an American term, but more like community gathering and events to uncover stories and deep line in a bigger issue. Is that something that you guys would do more actively?
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, we’re pretty active. We go to the council meetings, which are once a week, and the committee meetings, and that’s on a Tuesday so that reporter would go to those. It’s also about looking beyond just what happens at city hall, and we use a range of techniques. It could contact, it could be monitoring Facebook groups to see what people are talking about, it could be looking at open data, or requesting data on a particular thing that could develop into a story. It’s a range of avenues that we look at, and it’s not just about sort of going to the meeting.
    Danielle Cronin: There’s also petitions which are sometimes interesting, questions on noshes, tender documents, all those areas can sometimes generate cracking stories.
    Vahe Arabian: What’s some of the recent ones that has been covered by BT? That you’re proud of from your team.
    Danielle Cronin: There’s a lot. There was a few recently, we did a big expose on a local government leader, which resulted in him facing some extra charges. We also did an investigation into the inter-state trading waste, and how there was some interesting dynamics in that was resulting in Southeast Queensland becoming a dumping ground for New South Wales.
    Danielle Cronin: We’ve also done some really interesting stuff in state politics about policy, in terms of … Actually one of my favorite stories of recent time was a story about a couple that were living in a rotunda by the Brisbane river and had nowhere to stay. So, we went and spoke to them, and just hearing their story and how they were coping with their circumstances was a really powerful story.
    Vahe Arabian: Yeah, I think being able to connect on that human level makes it more immersive and makes it much more … gives more sympathy to what’s been written, as well.
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, absolutely.
    Vahe Arabian: With Fairfax, and having that nation-wide network, is that something that you guys leverage more often? Or how do you guys work together to have a nationwide news and cover more … get a big audience that way.
    Danielle Cronin: Well, it’s great because we have some big investigations that we have. It means that people in all the states can read the great work that’s being done in that field. In terms of logistically, we have a national news conference twice a day, and that’s an opportunity for people to pitch their best stories, and also discuss opportunities to build on those stories.
    Danielle Cronin: The other way we use Slack a lot, we use Slack for inter-office communication, which is really handy. So, for instance, something like if there’s a breaking news story like yesterday with the fact that all the supermarkets cash registers went array, and no one could pay for anything. You can quickly check if anyone on breaking news teams, in other states, is working on it or whether you should get someone here to do it.
    Danielle Cronin: We also use Google Docs a lot, we use those to kind of share our best stories. Then it’s up to each masthead whether they want to promote it on the homepage or not. It’s great, even though we’re quite linked nationally it’s really amazing how much autonomy you have in terms of the news decisions that you make for you readership.
    Vahe Arabian: And are the mastheads ever placed, in terms of trying … are they trying to ever compete with each other or are they focusing on their local market as well?
    Danielle Cronin: I don’t think there’s competition, because we all serve a very different readership, both geographically. There is, an overarching who is a Fairfax reader. For the most part, most of the mastheads they, similar to the Brisbane Times, have their really strong compelling local stories, as well as their great national stories that are done by the teams that cover business or federal politics, or entertainment, or lifestyle. Each masthead has kind of marquee columnists as well, but they’re also ones that write for across Fairfax.
    Danielle Cronin: So, I’ve mentioned before we’ve got two accomplished authors who write for us, once a week. If they do something that’s of interest nationally, then the Homepage Editor in Sydney and Melbourne promote it on their homepage as well. So, I think it’s the best of both worlds, if that makes sense. Great collaboration and cooperation, as well as the autonomy to make the news decisions based on your understanding of the readership.
    Vahe Arabian: That’s cool. How do you see the current landscape in, especially media, digital media and journalism landscape at the moment? That’s very broad question but…
    Danielle Cronin: I think it’s pretty healthy. I think I mentioned earlier, we’ve had so many new players set up in Australia, and the existing mastheads are doing really well. There’s lots of players vying for attention. I think the thing that is always is top of mind, is that you don’t need to be the shrillest to survive and thrive, in digital media. I believe the readers still respect quality. We have a very loyal readership, which is wonderful, and also a huge responsibility, because I feel that they I have a vested interest in how we do things.
    Danielle Cronin: That’s really good, and I think too there’s a lot of interesting experimentation happening in the Australian digital media landscape. Seeing recently, one masthead dipped there toes into crowdfunding for a specific type of journalism, which I think is interesting.
    Danielle Cronin: So the Guardian Australia did a crowdfunding campaign to report more on environmental issues, so that was pretty interesting. Also, to one of the interesting things about the landscape at the moment, is definitely got some of the major mastheads pushing back against Facebook and Google, particularly.
    Vahe Arabian: A few years ago, it was acknowledged that Fairfax were a bit slower in digital transformation. Advertising was going … the revenue was going down. At that time as well, Guardian, New York Times, and some other international players also and Huffpost which is now diverged also into the market a few years ago. How do you think that events … those events impacted on where BT and Fairfax is today?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, I think from our latest report to shareholders, we’re in a really strong position. There have been some tough years, in the last few years. We seem to have come out of those and the huge investment in an entirely new CMS, new page builder system, and sort of new templates is … that’s a huge investment for a media company and sort of sets us up to be a modern newsroom that can pivot quite quickly if we want to try something online.
    Danielle Cronin: In terms of where we’re sitting with the rest of the industry, I think we’re in a really good position. I want to say it has been some pain, but it seems that we’re in a rebuilding phase. It’s also too interesting Fairfax is definitely to committed to continuing it’s newspaper business, which is great because all the avenues to tell great stories is great for a community.
    Vahe Arabian: And, do you think that TV might, in terms of the public’s point of view, do you think TV is still a big factor in journalism? Do you think that they see that as more weighting… there’s more weighting in that as opposed to online editors and online newsrooms?
    Danielle Cronin: It is interesting, I think every new development, in terms of spreading journalism as sort of been construed as the death of the one that came before it. We’ve been predicting the demise of newspapers, the demise of radio, the demise of television. I think if you put a newspaper out on the market today, with people having no historical knowledge of it, they would go: “This is amazing. I can get all of my news in this paper, I can also use it to line the bird cage after I’m finished, I can use it to clean the windows.”
    Danielle Cronin: I think there is definitely space for all the platforms. I think what matters more is the story telling itself. I think, regardless of the platform, there’s always going to be an appetite for compelling, cracking storytelling. Whether it’s on an online news site, or a television broadcast, or whatever. We’ve seen it in podcasting, like how popular that’s become because of the compelling stories that people are telling, or keeping people apprised of industry developments like this podcast does.
    Vahe Arabian: Do you think demographics has played a role in what kind of storytelling … the format the story-telling presents itself as?
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that, because I think there’s not a clear trend. For instance, I mentioned earlier, in terms of our readership we’ve got 18% of our readers are 14 to 29, and 19% is 65 plus, so for a site, that is a huge gamut of age groups. I think there are a cohort of younger people that like a particular style of journalism that might flock to that. I know that there are also ones that don’t really seek out the news, and just curate it through whatever social platform they’re on. So, I don’t think there’s a neat answer to that question.
    Danielle Cronin: That said, we have a very strong, younger, readership and they are loyal and they come through the homepage, so that kind of challenges the assumption that people don’t have that level of loyalty to a masthead. It’s not if they don’t identify where a source of information comes from and they don’t distinguish between something that someone sweated over to create this amazing story, and something that someone has just picked up and churned and put a snappy headline on.
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a neat answer to that, but it is really interesting to look at where it’s going.
    Vahe Arabian: It is. Everyone can draw their own insights and try to develop their own audience development strategy from that. Saying that, what do you see the current audience development with … let’s talk about the news redesign, because you’ve mentioned that a few times. Let’s talk about the audience development strategy that you’re focusing on, as well, with your team.
    Vahe Arabian: So with the new website redesign, you mentioned that it was part of the strategic initiative by the overall Fairfax Media group, to be able compete and be able to pivot when you can, whenever you want. When was the redesign … for those who don’t know, when did that redesign take place, and what’s been the results so far, and what do you expect to be able to do more moving forward from that?
    Danielle Cronin: We were the first site, in August last year, it’s now rolled out to the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and there’s two more mastheads to go. The idea was to build a CMS and homepage editing system, that would promote readability, would be fast loading, would be clean and modern. Also, teamed with that, making sure that we were focusing on the right things, in terms of engagement over page impressions. Which is kind of like comparing fast food to a proper meal. Then looking at the readability as well, because anyone who consumes any journalism or articles online knows that if it takes too long to load, you’re more than likely to jump off.
    Danielle Cronin: We’ve also integrated some work that’s been done under the Coral Project, which is pretty exciting, and that’s been integrated with Slack. We use that for production and messaging and planning and what not. We’ve also got a few features that are kind of interesting, in terms of tags. That makes it a bit more immersive for people. Instead of relying on someone to embed a hyperlink or relate a story, they can look at a particular tag and they’ll find different stories they might be interested …
    Danielle Cronin: … and they’ll find different stories that they might be interested on that topic. And one of the other things that’s kind of interesting is shortlist, which kind of reflects the fact that people might start the day on mobile, then move to desktop, then go to iPad. Through using that list in terms of … you actually click on the stories you want to read, and just read them in one go. So it’ll be interesting how that pans out, because it’s kind of like how if people use Pocket, you might consume news but in this case it creates a list for seven days and you also get to keep your reading history as well.
    Vahe Arabian: Where was that decision made around trying to trial that feature?
    Danielle Cronin: So it was made by a project team that kind of looked at where consumption and reader engagement was heading, and sort of giving people that option. I guess it gives the reader more control over what they want to read. So, if you’re dipping in and out through the day, you might be presented with the homepage as the editor sees it. But you might be more keen to read something that’s sort of further down the site, but you might have to go somewhere. You can easily just click on the plus button and then it sits in a shortlist for you. And then if you’re on the bus, you can read that on your mobile similarly you can read it on the iPad later.
    Vahe Arabian: So the product team, they did some research and they come up with a hypothesis that having curated content or personalized content is more beneficial to the audience, and having the official process … is that correct?
    Danielle Cronin: Yes. So they went through a range of hypotheses around website design, website usability, engagement. Some of the things that people might like to use, and also … so the end result is what we have now. But it’s pretty exciting as well, because the way it’s built, if we do decide that we want to try something, it’s quite quick to update. Some CMS’s, you have to have a long lead time, and it can take months before it gets on the schedule to be built and rolled out. Whereas we can turn things around quickly, which in … to be a modern, responsive news site, it’s critically important, I think.
    Vahe Arabian: What’s one of the recent examples that you’ve been able to turn around quickly, that you wanted your team to build out.
    Danielle Cronin: Good question. Well, for instance, we’ve got a new live blogging tool. We’ve got a featured template that’s just been rolled out, which is pretty amazing. There’s a lot. There’s about a hundred items on a Google spreadsheet somewhere, but I don’t want to bore you.
    Vahe Arabian: So, before the redesign, you guys had … I guess the process was a lot more longer, and you had to try to do it in batches.
    Danielle Cronin: Yes, it had to be on a list of developments that we want to have, and then there was a lead time in that. So that’s kind of shortened that time, which means we can be more innovative and more responsive.
    Vahe Arabian: That’s exciting. How do you take the next level in identifying new audience trends and better connecting with the audience using beyond age groups? What are you guys at the moment using to better monitor performance and audience development?
    Danielle Cronin: In terms of how we measure our audience, or how we engage?
    Vahe Arabian: Measurement, yeah.
    Danielle Cronin: Okay. So we’ve got a range of tools. We use Chartbeat, Google Analytics. We have an analytics dashboard that was created within Fairfax. So that gives us a bit of an idea about … it’s all about quality, page views, and what percentage of the pageviews on a story were deemed quality. And that’s a metric that we’ve set within Fairfax to decide that someone has really jumped into this story and read it. We separate out how many returning and new users come to a story. So we’ve got a range of ways of measuring them. We also, obviously, have an insider panel, which is fantastic. So they’re a group of loyal Brisbane Times readers who respond to questions once a week.
    Vahe Arabian: That’s interesting. And then looking at the subscription product online, what are some of the initiatives that BT is looking at to help improve online subscriptions? I’m assuming that advertising still plays a major role for the websites, right?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, we don’t have a subscription model, a paid subscription model, so-
    Vahe Arabian: Okay. It’s mostly relied on advertising as a main revenue stream.
    Danielle Cronin: Yes. So, advertising is what pays the bills for us.
    Vahe Arabian: Understood. Is there any roadmap or any plan on having a subscription or other … diversifying your revenue streams?
    Danielle Cronin: I think it’s something that’s always looked at, but there’s no immediate plans.
    Vahe Arabian: And is that something that you would decide, or is that something that Fairfax would decide, for the mastheads?
    Danielle Cronin: Yeah, that’s above my pay grade. So, Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age, and the Australian Financial Review all have subscription models. Whereas Brisbane Times, WA Today, and Canberra Times don’t have a subscription model. Brisbane Times and WA Today are online only sites. Canberra Times has the online site plus a newspaper, so they have newspaper revenue as well.
    Vahe Arabian: And why was it decided that Brisbane Times shouldn’t have a subscription offering?
    Danielle Cronin: I guess … I’m not sure exactly why, the decision was made before my time here. But I suspect it’s because, as I mentioned earlier, Brisbane Times was quite an extraordinary move to set up in a town that’s dominated by a legacy brand with hundreds and hundreds of … more than a hundred years, I think, of establishment in the state. So I think if you go too early, maybe the thinking was that you could hamper our ability to challenge. And it’s also to sort of … a lot of media companies were a little slower than some of the other countries of looking at subscription models. So, I’m not sure exactly why the decision was made, but I’m guessing that was part of it.
    Vahe Arabian: What would be the tipping point where you can say, “We’re now the leading online publication in Brisbane, or in Queensland.” And where do you see the tipping point of potentially looking at other products like a subscription offering?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, I think subscription offering decisions are above my pay grade, so I don’t want to speak for my big boss. I think we’ve already absolutely cemented ourselves as a leading used brand in southeast Queensland. Like I said, we have really loyal readers. They come to us multiple times a day. So I think we’ve definitely cemented ourselves in that place. Now it’s kind of thinking about, is it mass audience or engaged audience? And we’re really going for the engaged audience, so that’s a different proposition than something like, for instance, the Daily Mail or those propositions. So the ultimate decision on whether BT goes to subscriptions would be made by someone far more senior than me, but we are up against a masthead that has a very tight paywall. And they also have just purchased … well, recently purchased a string of regional dailies, so the concentration of media ownership in Queensland has got even significantly higher since that happened. So they’ve pretty much got mastheads from North Queensland down.
    Vahe Arabian: And what’s your 2018 initiatives to increase engaged journalism within BT?
    Danielle Cronin: In BT? There’s lot of interesting things that we’re doing. So we’re looking at ways to kind of build on some of the things that I mentioned earlier. Also, I guess ultimately it’s about storytelling and looking at innovative ways that we might be able to tell stories in the future. I think it’s going to be interesting to monitor in terms of … the Australian media scene is the crowdfunded reporting, if that becomes more of a thing. Whether mastheads are successful in pushing back against  Google, and Facebook. And also to preparing for, perhaps, less reliance on Facebook. Making efforts to reclaim reader engagement from social media, whether that’s through advances in commenting or exploring other off-platform publishing options, or events, or something else that remains to be seen. So those are some of the things that kind of are on the agenda for the year ahead.
    Vahe Arabian: Anything planned tthat you can share with us, or-
    Danielle Cronin: Not in the immediate future. So, some of the things that we’re looking at is maybe some different ways to tell state political stories. We’ve also been doing some work with popup news rooms with universities. So, we did one for the Commonwealth Games,  which was pretty interesting. So, those types of things. Also, experimenting with sort of immersive storytelling and how to tell a story in a new way, and engage people. So those are some of the areas, broadly, that we’re looking at.
    Vahe Arabian: So, what does immersive journalism mean to you? Is that more using VR/AR, or is that just having in-depth content, or … what does immersive journalism mean?
    Danielle Cronin: I would love to be able to tell a story in VR, but the availability or the use of headsets is a problem. I think it can mean a range of things. It can mean bringing in different mediums, so … whether it’s audio, video. It could be marrying on-platform and off-platform options. So, for instance, telling a story but combining that with something, whether it’s a playlist, or whatever it is. So that’s kind of interesting. And also, allowing readers to kind of control a little bit about how they interact with the story. And also using comments as well, which … there’s some interesting work being done in terms of making the comment stream more interactive with people in the newsroom. Personally, as editor, I’m looking at ways to engage more with the community. So I haven’t settled on a particular way to do that yet, but I’ve got some options that I’m looking at, because what we mentioned earlier … there are so many amazing shiny things out there. It’s about working out the best one to reach the people and engage with the people that you want to. So whether that’s going to where they are, or using something that’s not used widely, but hoping they’ll come with you. It should be a really exciting year, and also there’ll be developments in terms of what we have on the websites as well.
    Vahe Arabian: It’s a beast… it’s very much rapidly changing and there’s nothing which is constant, so it just makes it harder, but at the same time more exciting to figure out all these, I guess.
    Danielle Cronin: Absolutely.
    Vahe Arabian: Danielle, just to wrap this up, I guess … given your years of experience in both political journalism and being an editor now, and looking at your local journalism … what’s your advice for digital media journalists that are looking to get into either of the fields that you’ve been in, aspects of the role that you’ve been in and … yeah, what advice can you give them to make the most of the opportunities out there?
    Danielle Cronin: Yes, I had a good think about this, and I think it’s an excellent question. I kind of subscribe to the theory of the late, great David Carr from the New York Times. He has this great quote about having … the media’s gone through this really tough period, but we’re entering a golden age in journalism. And he pointed out that his backpack contained more journalistic firepower than an entire newsroom that he walked into, 30 to 40 years ago. So I guess my best advice is, try to master as many story forms and storytelling mediums as you can. So text, audio, visual, social, the list goes on. While the industry is definitely smaller than it was even five years ago, there is still a value placed on compelling storytelling from … whether it’s live blogging to longform. It doesn’t matter. I think value your reputation. It’s the most important journalistic tool that you have and can be easily forfeited, and cheaply forfeited. And just be curious, tenacious, flexible, and commit to lifelong learning so you can keep across all those changes that you were mentioning just before.
    Vahe Arabian: And what do you look for yourself ahead, in terms of your own career development?
    Danielle Cronin: Well, I’m pretty interested in what I’m doing now. I haven’t really thought too far ahead, so it was pretty exciting to have last year and be able to use the new system. So I’m just hoping that the BT goes from strength to strength and personally, I’m super happy with what I’m doing now, and I think … coming from a newspaper background, which I love, I still love newspapers. But what I love about digital is that the shackles are taken off. You can cherry-pick from any form of journalism, any medium, any tool, and create something amazing. So to me, that isn’t old yet. So I’d like to do a bit more of that.
    Vahe Arabian: Awesome. Thank you for joining us again, I really appreciate it.
    Danielle Cronin: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
    Vahe Arabian: Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the State of Digital Publishing podcast. Be sure to listen to past and upcoming episodes by visiting the major podcast networks. You can also listen to it on www.stateofdigitalpublishing.com, and also gain access to our membership and upcoming news and articles. Be sure to join our community and share our content on social media and groups. Until next time.

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