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News 26 Jul 2022 - 5 min read

Public trust in media plummets, Guardian Australia counters with first brand campaign to grow audience by 1 million, drive reader donations beyond 60% of revenues

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

Guardian Australia Director of Growth, Jocelin Abbey: "We know that the more access to [factual] journalism people have, the more informed they are, therefore it bridges that partisan divide."

Journalists and publishers may be horrified by the data but it's clear from multiple research studies that trust in media is in trouble - just 43 per cent of Australians trust what they read and see, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, “making it the only institution in Australia that is distrusted by a majority of the population”. Other studies support the findings, including Guardian Australia-commissioned research from YouGov, which finds media ownership is dramatically affecting public perceptions of impartiality. It's a problem but The Guardian – which generates 60 per cent of its revenues here from reader donations – is tackling the trust deficit head-on with the first brand campaign since launching locally nine years ago, managed live and daily by its editors. "News needs a Guardian" is the strapline that the publisher hopes will help attract a million new readers, more ad revenues, reader donations and entrench the masthead's public credibility.    

What you need to know:

  • Guardian Australia launches first brand campaign in a bid for new audiences. It’s pinning growth strategy on readers aligning with trust, facts and shared values.
  • Studies suggest Australia’s media has deep trust issues – just 43 per cent trust media – deepened by partisan politics. YouGov research for Guardian Australia found people think media ownership, and owner agendas, skews the content.
  • Director of Growth Jocelin Abbey says lack of trust affects the entire industry – so bidding to address it while building brand and driving revenue growth.
  • News Needs a Guardian campaign via Howatson + Company using JCDecaux panels to hit commuters with brand message and curated news headlines morning and evening “when they are most mentally available,” per Abbey.
  • JCDecaux chosen for its intent to decarbonise. Guardian aligning supply chain partners around sustainability.
  • TV and cinema also on self-bought schedule. Abbey aims for a million new monthly readers on top of 6-8million the masthead currently reaches.
  • That will create new inventory, enabling ad revenue growth and opportunity to convert more readers to donators – with reader contributions now making a whopping 60 per cent of group revenue.
  • MD Dan Stinton says cash from platforms via Media Bargaining Code has helped fund 60 new hires and new product growth. But he’s “surprised” Meta is holding out on striking deals with SBS and The Conversation.

The Edelman study essentially shows that media and government were the two institutions that were least trusted in Australia – and that affects all of us … because the issues that we are facing sit at an all of industry level. The Guardian is not immune to that.

Jocelin Abbey, Director of Growth, Guardian Australia

Broken news

If you believe everything you read, trust in news media is at an all time low. The Guardian is aiming to capitalise on that deficit while also solving its own commercial challenges: Nine years after launching in Australia, audience growth has topped out after a Covid surge and advertiser demand for its audience is squeezing available inventory. That means it needs to grow to create more eyeballs and ad slots  – and keep its bustling reader donations strategy humming, which now accounts for fully 60 per cent of group revenues.

The masthead is aiming for another million readers a month on top of the 6-8 million it publicly claims via its first Howatson + Co. created brand campaign – bought without using a media agency – that puts daily headlines live from the newsrooms onto commuter-focused digital billboards.

The Covid-triggered surge in audiences for many news and media companies is all but over – now they have to again fight for attention and time and The Guardian, flush with Big Tech money from the Media Bargaining Code, is stepping up.  

Director of Growth, Jocelin Abbey, is spearheading the push. The former ABC Head of Marketing joined Guardian Australia last October. Now she’s targeting 15 per cent year-on-year growth – essentially from monetising trust, which locally and globally appears in short supply.

Mastheads and journalists may disagree – AFR’s Chanticleer took umbrage with some methodologies – but the pollsters appear consistent in their findings. Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer found trust in media is down to 43 per cent “making it the only institution in Australia that is distrusted by a majority of the population”. University of Canberra’s 2022 Digital News Report found just 41 per cent of Australians trust news.

Trust busted

Edelman and Canberra findings tally with Guardian Australia-commissioned research by YouGov that suggests half of the population don’t trust Australian media to be fair and balanced – and that 82 per cent of Australians believe that media ownership influences the content that’s published.

Abbey thinks those statistics present opportunity – commercially, societally and existentially – for those that deal in fact.

“The Edelman study essentially shows that media and government were the two institutions that were least trusted in Australia – and that affects all of us … because the issues that we are facing sit at an all of industry level. The Guardian is not immune to that - they are challenges that we need to address systematically,” she told Mi3.

She thinks polarisation of right and left is a key factor in ongoing trust erosion.

“The rise of populism really does play into what [and who] can you trust? So it is a really important insight. That was the context in which we went to YouGov … to get a sense of what people were looking for and how we could contribute to bringing people together.”

Bridging partisan divide?

Yet there is cause for optimism and way for media to heal self-inflicted wounds even within Edelman’s grim findings, Abbey suggests.

“There is one stat that is particularly pertinent in the Edelman Trust Barometer and that's that factual journalism bridges the different economic socioeconomic levels. So it basically pulls people closer together – because if you have access to fact-based information, reporting that is true to the facts, it actually bridges that divide between socioeconomic groups.”

Irrespective of political leaning, Guardian Australia’s YouGov research found that eight in ten people think media ownership influences the news. Could it have asked which mastheads are seen as most skewed?

“No. We absolutely did not want to go there,” said Abbey. “This is about how we bring people together and look at addressing issues in society … not in a partisan way, but in a way that allows independent fact-based journalism to get to a broader audience.

“Ultimately, that is what we're seeking to do as part of this growth strategy. Because we know that the more access to [factual] journalism people have, the more informed they are, therefore it bridges that partisan divide.”

Hence the brand platform, 'News Needs a Guardian', via Howatson + Company. 

The aim is to catch commuters “when they are most mentally available,” per Abbey, and give them fresh news at the start and end of their day, to “better understand they world they live in and what had changed from going to work in the morning and coming home in the afternoon”.

We've previously relied on discovery of our content for growth to date. We're now at a point where relying on that sort of organic discovery isn't going to continue to result in growth.

Jocelin Abbey, Director of Growth, Guardian Australia

Decarbonisation dollars

JCDecaux was chosen to provide the out-of-home pipes based on its intent to decarbonise – even though the billboards the Guardian’s campaign will use do not currently deliver carbon neutrality.

That intent “was absolutely an influencing factor,” in the OOH firm winning the campaign, said Abbey.

“We're on our own journey and are setting out to be a leader in the field. We've got a long way to go, but we're committed to reducing our emissions by two thirds between 2020 and 2030 – and we are seeking to quantify any partners that we work with.

“While JCDecaux doesn’t currently offer the products that we [will be using] as carbon neutral, they have an aligned approach and are looking to develop their product set into the future.”

Abbey agrees with recent statements from GroupM that carbon offsetting – buying credits that fund tree planting or clean energy development – ultimately won’t cut it.

“That’s the easy option. Emissions reduction is what everyone should be aiming for … to actually address the climate crisis.”

Supporter revenue accounts for about 60 per cent of our revenue as a business and there is a big push around that with a lot of work happening to simplify the experience.

Jocelin Abbey, Director of Growth, Guardian Australia

More eyeballs, more inventory

Since launch in 2013, the Guardian has notched double-digit growth, around 15 per cent annually for the last few years, per Abbey.  But with audience increases plateauing – and ad revenue and inventory directly linked – the campaign will also run on TV via SBS and via Palace Cinemas nationwide in a bid to reach more eyeballs, build brand and drive conversion.

“Our problem to solve is essentially that only half the country knows that we exist. We’ve been here nine years, but we've not had the benefit of having physical newspaper drop into people's front door to build brand and habit,” Abbey acknowledged.

“We've previously relied on discovery of our content for growth to date. We're now at a point where relying on that sort of organic discovery isn't going to continue to result in growth.”

Donations, diversification push

The brand platform’s key KPI is a 20 per cent increase in brand awareness that ultimately keeps the masthead on its 15 per cent growth trajectory, boosting reader numbers, ad revenue potential and also Guardian Australia’s reader donations model – which has confounded naysayers and now represents the lion’s share of income.

“Supporter revenue accounts for about 60 per cent of our revenue as a business and there is a big push around that with a lot of work happening to simplify the experience,” said Abbey.

In the meantime, the Guardian is also open to further revenue diversification, potentially through partnerships.

We've hired about 60 people since the deals were complete, the vast majority of which are in our newsroom. Not all of these roles were the direct result of the agreements we struck with Google and Facebook. But those agreements gave us the confidence to bring forward investments.

Dan Stinton, MD, Guardian Australia

Bargaining Code win

Either way, the masthead is reaping the revenue diversification benefits accrued from the News Media Bargaining code – and the millions of dollars secured from Facebook and Google in return for using publisher content.

Guardian Australia MD Dan Stinton would not be drawn on the exact figures.

“The details of our agreements remain confidential. However, it’s worth noting that we've hired about 60 people since the deals were complete, the vast majority of which are in our newsroom,” he said.

“Not all of these roles were the direct result of the agreements we struck with Google and Facebook. But those agreements gave us the confidence to bring forward investments that we would have made in subsequent years into the last twelve months.”

As well as paying for more reporters, Stinton said the money had helped fund “huge investments in podcasting, our video team, in state-based coverage in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales that we didn’t have before”.

“So by any measure it’s been a tremendously successful policy intervention. News publishers are now being compensated fairly for the benefit that the platforms receive from our content, and the industry is in a healthier state than it has been in years as a result.”

Publishers yet to see a penny from Google or Facebook disagree, arguing that big media has trousered most of the cash. Stinton pointed out that the platforms “have actually done a large number of deals with independent media and smaller publishers”.

“However, I am surprised that Meta has not completed agreements with publishers that have qualified with ACMA. And in particular, I am surprised that they haven't struck agreements with SBS and The Conversation, given the large number of news journalists they employ and news content they create.”

Facebook’s ongoing involvement with news is open to question, sharpening publisher incentives to grow direct audiences. Either way, Guardian Australia appears convinced truth and trust could be a better bet.

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