The Sydney Morning Herald
Re-imagining the digital experience for Australia’s biggest independent news publications, including The AGE, Brisbane Times and WA Today
In 2016 Fairfax started on a digital transformation journey in response to declining revenues. I joined a stand-alone team separate from the main business, looking at not only how we could move from an ad based revenue model to a sustainable subscription model, but also re-evaluating how we design for consumers rapidly evolving news consumption. We took the re-architecture of the technology platform as an opportunity to overhaul everything, including a whole new web experience, a new editorial CMS, and a refined and consolidated brand for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday.
Why do we read news?
Initial research and testing was focussed on users daily news consumption and reading habits. We looked at how it aligned with the established cadence of the newsroom and what type of content resonated throughout the working day and weekend.
We also scrutinised why people consumed news, whether it was just about staying informed, feeling more connected to their local and global community, or the need for social currency. With such a large and diverse audience we found it easier to focus on user needs rather than design for a range of personas, something we still do today.
The research helped inform some of the initial home page designs, as well as additional features like The Shortlist. It also highlighted the discrepancies between digital and print, where print often allows for better scannability, greater curation of related content, and a sense of completion.
Today we supplement qualitative insights with a robust quantitative data layer. The benefit of working on products for several years is the ability to continually learn and improve the user experience. Not just looking at customer behaviour, but also the ever changing needs of the newsroom. Side effect of Covid for example has been a major upgrade to the live articles, as running commentary throughout the day has become the norm for reporting on this topic.
Ink in your veins
With a newsroom of more than 500 journalists and editors, the metro mastheads, as well as the Australian Financial Review, didn’t just need a more efficient way to publish stories online. With print publications clinging to life, they needed ways to make print more sustainable as well.
To address this we developed Ink, our own custom CMS environment. Using WordPress as the backbone, we examined the many complex and varied user needs of the newsroom and looked at journeys that go far beyond what the WordPress platform is built for. Initial releases focused on the basics, like publishing articles in different states, but was quickly enhanced over time.
Ink now brings together integrated print-digital planning, content creation, production, homepage editing, newsletters, video publishing, and machine learning in a single, consistent platform. Journalists and editors move easily between tasks and roles thanks to an emphasis on intuitive design that requires little to no new learning. And it is still evolving.
Streamlining the brand
Part of my remit was to oversee the digital brand experience, something that seemed to have been neglected and left without proper supervision for a long time. BCG had done some initial exploration which we built upon and refined as we designed the visual language for the new websites.
While it was important to retain the heritage of the Sydney Morning Herald and The AGE brands, both the WA Today and Brisbane Times were given revised logos, and all were updated with a new and consistent colour palette.
Intentionally excluded from the original remit, the font choices that were made for digital were later incorporated into print to ensure a consistent brand experience across all touchpoints.
We developed a design system off the back of the refined brand language, emphasising accessibility and simplicity above all else. Like all design systems, it continues to evolve as new product requirements are implemented, and it has grown to include a full spectrum of digital platforms.
The journey continues
It is incredibly rewarding to work on a product millions of Australians use every day, and where readership and subscriptions continue to grow. Premium subscription tiers, enhanced paywalls, newsletters, social media, native apps. These are only some of the exciting challenges that come with working on this world class product in an ever evolving media market.
The most rewarding element however is leading my team through these challenges and watching them grow into highly skilled and motivated designers, with a deep knowledge of the products, the company, and the audience. They continue to make me look good, which obviously is the biggest challenge of them all.
Fairfax / Nine Publishing – 2016-2023