Sports crucial to the Herald Sun’s commercial and editorial success

Editor Damon Johnston: ‘Not much stays secret in football for very long’

AFL is an important part of the Herald Sun’s success commercially and editorially. Therefore, it comes with little surprise that this month is going to be big for the News Corp-owned Melbourne daily leading up to the AFL grand final on September 29.

“During September of last year, we sold an extra 300,000 copies of the paper. Our digital audience went up to three million page views in the grand final week alone,” Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston told Mediaweek.

There are five Victorian teams in the running to play in the grand final this year.

“Our dream grand final would be with Richmond and Collingwood. That hasn’t happened since 1980,” Johnston said. This is especially the case given Collingwood’s large membership base. “It’s a wonderful time to be in Victoria and at the Herald Sun when you have a heap of strong Victorian teams playing.”

While the Herald Sun prides itself on its coverage of the AFL, it faces some tough competition from the sporting body’s own media division.

“The digital space is pretty dynamic and there is plenty of competition out there,” Johnston said. “We say here, ‘Not much stays secret in football for very long.’ We tend to break a lot of our big football stories online. When you get a breaking football story, it is rare that it stays secret for too long. Our digital football audience is very important so we have to keep the content updated and moving quickly.”

Asked if there are any discrepancies between the access other media outlets get and AFL.com.au gets, Johnston said: “As the official media arm of the league, AFL.com.au has access to content that we don’t such as video rights. On some occasions, they do get better access to players than we would too. That’s where we have to work harder to ensure that our relationships with clubs and players are so strong that when they have a big story to tell they come to us first to tell it.”

This helps keep the Herald Sun on its toes, Johnston said, explaining it’s good to not get too comfortable.

The sports action doesn’t end for the Herald Sun with the AFL premiership. There is perhaps a bigger sporting moment waiting to happen around the corner.

“The big thing this year will be Winx going for another Cox Plate. That will be an historic event come October 20 at Moonee Valley,” Johnston said. The Herald Sun will have a wrap about Winx in the weekend edition of the paper before the races. Johnston said, “It could end up being the sporting story of the year.”

The Herald Sun readers love their sport and they like their true crime stories too. The category has become increasingly popular with the readers of News Corp mastheads around the country in the last two years. All News Corp metro mastheads house a True Crime category on their websites. It pulls together the best of true crime stories from around the country, Johnston said. To get a piece of this pie, the Herald Sun also publishes a podcast with its well-known journalist Andrew Rule. The Life and Crimes with Andrew Rule podcast is free, unlike many of the articles on the Herald Sun website, which are behind a paywall.

The paywall is not new and the push behind digital subscriptions dates five years back to when Herald Sun first introduced the premium business model to its website, Johnston pointed out. It currently has 93,000 paid subscribers, which is, the editor noted, “certainly the biggest number of subscribers of any of the metropolitan mastheads in Australia”. The Australian is an exception to this statement as it is a national newspaper.

Looking at the growth of its digital subscribers year-on-year, Johnston aims to break the 100,000 barrier in the next 12 months. He said that this would be a symbolic moment. However, he added, “It doesn’t finish there.

“You have to keep on attracting more and more people. For that, we have to make sure that our content is good, attractive and newsy enough for people to be willing to pay for it online.”

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