A digital-first future: the SMH’s Darren Goodsir and Drive’s Andrew Maclean on online publishing

The SMH’s Darren Goodsir and newly relaunched Drive’s Andrew Maclean on Fairfax Media’s digital future.

By Sally Rawsthorne

Following a number of technical setbacks, Fairfax’s stand-alone automotive website Drive.com.au relaunched this week. The redesigned site has several new features and provides an adaptive user experience, which Drive editor Andrew Maclean told Mediaweek would reposition the site in the marketplace. “The site looks fantastic, and the redesign has completely flipped our position. We’re going from relying on classified listings to becoming more of a research tool for consumers at the front-end of their buying journey.

The new site will be a lot more influential over the buying process, it’s a lot more research-focused and looks fresh and exciting. We’ll continue to run listings, but obviously that comes at the very end of the car purchasing process. That transactional part comes once you’ve decided to buy a car. We’re really focused on the part that comes before that, particularly because the Australian car market is very competitive. Cars aren’t so generic any more, so people are less aware of what suits their lifestyles and budget. We have also developed some more features that allow people to figure out what suits their needs.”

Maclean hopes that this realigned positioning will increase the site’s audience, through providing content for all stages of the car-purchasing journey. “We’re expanding our foundation and our position as Australia’s most authoritative editorial automotive website, and really playing on that in terms of the consumer using the website as a research tool. Content is king, and we focus on our editorial and our reviews. It’s definitely a cleaner, more seamless experience.”

“We are Australia’s most
authoritative editorial
automotive website”
– Maclean

Although there is no Drive.com.au app and no plans to develop one, Maclean said the site was fully mobile-optimised. “We admit that we haven’t been that good in that space previously. But it’s very important to be able to use the site when you’re out and about – say, out buying a car! Now, it’s a responsive site so you’ll have the same experience on the desktop site as you do on tablet and on mobile.”

Although “Fairfax is obviously digital first”, the content on Drive.com.au will be syndicated across the Drive supplement of both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s Saturday editions. “Everything that we produce is for online. We then repackage it for print specifically, because of the stricter boundaries around page layout and pictures. Obviously, you can’t put video content in print and that’s a very large part of what we do.”

As the relaunched Drive.com.au joins indies CarSales.com.au and CarAdvice.com.au as well as News Corp’s behemoth CarsGuide.com.au, is there room in the market for another auto advice site? Maclean certainly thinks so. “We have a key position in the market. The credibility of the Fairfax Media in general and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age mastheads give us a strong and unique positioning. We’re also uniquely positioned in the way that we integrate both print and digital – we’re the only editorial team that works across both of the products. We’re able to seamlessly integrate that, and have a better reader experience thanks to the consistency across those two formats.

“We have authoritative and comprehensive research and editorial tools, we’re introducing a new scoring system for how we rate vehicles and we think it’s the most comprehensive in Australia. We have 10 key criteria that we use to rate the vehicles – some subjective, some objective. Using key data, we can really drill down so that our readers can work out what the best car for their lifestyle is,” he added.

[blockquote style=”3″]CV: Andrew MacLean

A motoring journalist by trade, MacLean has worked all over the industry. “I’ve been an automotive journalist for almost 20 years, and cars are my passion. I’ve been involved with cars since I was a teenager, whether that’s racing them or designing or building them. I’ve worked for News Limited’s Cars Guide at the Herald Sun in Melbourne, and I was at ACP [Bauer] as the editor of Motor. I’ve also worked in the corporate world as a comms manager for Ford Performance Vehicles.[/blockquote]

>> Driving the Future

When we asked Maclean what the future of Fairfax’s Drive masthead and site looked like, he pointed to a combination of digital and print content. “The future is very bright, and the new website is the foundation of our strategy going forward. We have great commercial opportunities and great editorial opportunities, and we’ll move from here to capitalise on everything that we can. We are looking to further develop the lifestyle pillars that we currently touch in a very small way. Things like motorcycles, 4WDs, adventure-type caravans, trade vehicles and commercial vehicles – there’s plenty of opportunity for us to grow out content. Video is another key element. We have great engagement there. We have more than 12.5 million views on our YouTube channel, and 20,000 followers. We’ve got some good foundations on which to build as we go forward. The next step is to redesign our print product in the not-too-distant future. At the moment, we’re formulating the editorial content plan. But it [the redesigned supplement] will align itself more closely with the lifestyle aspect of our content. It’ll also have a fresh new look.” Maclean declined to give a date for the launch of the redesigned supplement, but noted that it would be soon.

>> Darren Goodsir: Social focus, a diversified business model plus Apple Watches: The future of The Sydney Morning Herald 

“Print news will always be our heritage, but we’re moving towards much more visual journalism and alternative ways of storytelling. We want to be at the cutting edge of everything that moves, whether it works or not,” The Sydney Morning Herald EIC Darren Goodsir told a crowded room of mostly older readers at a SMH Live event this week.

Joining Goodsir on a panel looking at the SMH’s digital past, present and future were social media editor Georgia Waters, digital editor Conal Hanna and innovation editor Stephen Hutcheon. 

Twenty years of digital technology have passed since
SMH.com.au launched on Anzac Day 1995, with various iterations of the website’s home page, app development, social and search all having changed the way The Sydney Morning Herald speaks to its online audience.

Goodsir noted that not all of these changes have been positive when an audience member asked about the 2014 decision to outsource sub-editing roles to New Zealand, and hinted at a possible return of the subs. “Some of the decisions have been fantastic, and some have been less than optimal – all have taken place against a backdrop of witheringly fast change. One of the challenges for us is to take as many attributes of our 185-year history as possible into a commercial environment which is to say the least tough. [But] there’s no decision that we take that can’t be reversed.”

As to changes in the SMH’s funding, Goodsir noted that the Fairfax publication was looking at diversifying its revenue from a traditional advertising and subscriptions-based model. “We are looking at other ways of making money that utilise the brand and its loyal following and cherished place in the community. All of a sudden, we’ve realised that our events business [including The Sun Herald City2Surf, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Month’s Night Noodle Markets and the less successful Spectrum Now festival] means we’ve got quite a bit of expertise in this area that we didn’t really realise. It’s not to subsidise the journalism, it’s to support the journalism. We stand pretty rarely in world terms as being a publisher that does public good journalism in a commercial model.”

He also noted that the SMH is investing heavily in video as it moves into the future, with social also being a big focus – The Sydney Morning Herald’s Facebook page has 430,000 fans while its Twitter account is followed by 415,000 people. Off the back of what Goodsir called “a worrying patch” a few years ago, The Sydney Morning Herald looks set for a bright digital future.

When SMH.com.au launched in 2005, it was the #1 news website in Australia. That honour now goes to News Corp’s news.com.au, although digital editor Conal Hanna did note that the SMH was the only brand in the top 5 news websites in Australia to have an associated newspaper.

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