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A regional restructure: Newcastle Herald editor Heath Harrison on 2016

Newcastle Herald editor Heath Harrison talks about changes, close proximity to Sydney, and the focus for 2016

• Newcastle Herald editor Heath Harrison talks about changes, close proximity to Sydney, and the focus for 2016

Just under 160km north of Sydney is New South Wales’ second most-populated area, Newcastle. The city is the home to the only paper in the greater Hunter Region and Central Coast that publishes six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. The Newcastle Herald is amongst Fairfax’s oldest papers in Australia.

It takes just about three hours to drive to Newcastle from Sydney, which is the home to two local daily papers (The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald) and one national paper printed seven days a week (The Australian).

“The metros keep us on our toes and we have a great relationship with our friends at The Sydney Morning Herald. We help each other out wherever we can,” Newcastle Herald editor Heath Harrison told Mediaweek.

“Newcastle is a great place for a newspaper because there is always something going on and that will often attract national attention. But the things the Newcastle Herald has made its name on in recent times are the yarns our journalists have dug up themselves.

“Things like the campaign for a royal commission into child sex abuse, the investigation into former billionaire Nathan Tinkler’s trail of debts, the environmental havoc, and health risks caused by mining and industry, to name just a few.”

The newspaper’s local focus is vital for it to differentiate itself from the big three Sydney titles.

“Sitting beneath our masthead are the words ‘Voice of the Hunter’,” Harrison proclaimed. “That’s the role the Newcastle Herald has played for more than 150 years, telling the stories that matter to the people of the Hunter.

“Newspapers change, the staff change, readers change, technology changes but the mission remains the same – keeping our readers informed, shining lights in dark places, fighting for a fairer deal, giving a loud hailer to those without a voice.”

The masthead has been named the best regional newspaper and website for three years in a row at the PANPAs under the leadership of the former editor Chad Watson. Fairfax named Harrison the editor of the paper in September 2015, when Watson was promoted as the group managing editor for the Newcastle-Hunter region. Harrison joined the Newcastle Herald just under a month after Fairfax put forward the restructure proposal, which would see 69 jobs go across the Hunter and Central Coast region.

“Change is always challenging and it’s been a constant for us in the past six months,” Harrison admitted. “New system, new structure, new work practices, new building and new publishing philosophy but the same commitment to the community and their causes.

“For some people, these changes have meant shifting the work habits of a lifetime. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve done it. We’ve needed our younger people to step up over the past six months, and how they’ve risen to that challenge has been inspirational.”

The print world has changed in terms of its relationship with the audience. It’s a two-way street now, Harrison said. This has its challenges and opportunities.

The key to staying relevant is “listen to them [the community],” he said.

“Readers have more access to reporters – and influence over stories – than they have ever had. The days of the newspaper dictating to readers are over. Now, it’s a two-way street, it’s much more of a conversation with our audience.

“Our readers have always been our eyes and ears but they’ve got a real voice now, whether it’s through our social media outlets or online interaction on comments and blogs.

“The reaction is immediate. That can be confronting, particularly during periods of change, but that access also opens up so many possibilities – not only for reporters and the Newcastle Herald but the media industry as a whole.”

The Newcastle Herald’s Saturday edition is a key asset to the business, Harrison revealed.

“It’s the big paper of the week,” he said. “We want to make every edition sing but we’ve always got an eye on Saturday. [We try to] to make sure we’ve got a great splash but also the right mix between hard news and human interest and those stories and reads that are just suited to Saturday. We have a great Weekender liftout, captained by [magazine editor] Jim Kellar, with great local columnists and profiles of local people doing special things.

“With two teams in national sporting competitions, sport is a huge part of the paper, particularly on Saturday. Then of course there are the online reactions and interactions that unfold over the weekend around stories we have broken or our feature reads, profile pieces and opinion pieces.”

There is never going to be a dull moment at the Newcastle Herald this year, Harrison assured us. “There are some major stories that will play out over the next 12 months over all levels of government here, with light rail and urban renewal projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars unfolding, council amalgamations on the agenda and a federal election hot on the heels of some pretty significant boundary redistributions.

“As a masthead, of course, we are continually striving to get bigger and better at digital, and bigger and better at social without ever forgetting our print product.

“More than anything, we’re looking forward to that next big yarn, that next amazing photo.”

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