The Times takes a startup approach to its expansion down under

Kings Canyon, Australia (Ueli Fahrni / Wikipedia)

After posting a link to the news last month that he will be heading The New York Times’s new Australia bureau, Damien Cave caught grief on Twitter for an illustration accompanying the announcement, which depicted a reporter emerging from the pouch of a kangaroo.

Weary of the stereotypes outsiders often bring to the country–cue this video of a man punching a kangaroo that went viral via The Daily Mail in December–Cave’s followers were quick to extract a promise from the incoming bureau chief to avoid such tropes in the Times. The latest in a string of foreign news organizations to make a play in Australia in the last five years, the Times’s challenge, like that of its predecessors, is to provide nuanced coverage that serves the interests of local readers. “They’ve got to be careful of not coming in and seeing Australia as a source of novelty stories around vegemite and kangaroos and the weird football we play,” says Tim Dunlop, an Australian media commentator and author.

An experienced foreign correspondent who previously worked in Mexico and Baghdad for the Times, Cave has since been in touch with readers via a newsletter and on social media, crowdsourcing suggestions on how to get up to speed on Australian culture. “I’m asking people, What else should I be reading? Who else should I be talking to? I’m saying, Help me learn,” he adds. As part of that effort, he re-watched the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding, a cultural touchstone set in the fictional dead-end town of Porpoise Spit, and is reading the work of Tim Winton, a celebrated Australian author. “One of the things I’ve found around the world is that the artists and novelists can often tell you more about a country than the politicians,” he says.

Cave will also lean on a team of locals: Australian journalist Jacqueline Williams, who previously worked on the investigations team in New York; Michelle Innis, a longtime Australia correspondent; and a crew of journalists, editors, and project collaborators, many of whom Cave expects to recruit over the coming months. “Once you get past the kangaroo, what you see is we’re trying to build this as a startup,” he says. “It starts small, and open, and transparent.”

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The team will integrate its Australia coverage into the wider Times editorial operation. “We feel like we’re uniquely positioned to do not just great coverage of Australia, but to also really put Australia into a global perspective, to connect the dots [between] Australia and our reporters all over the world,” he says. Instead of trying to compete with local players with blanket coverage, Cave will focus on themes and subjects where the Times has a special expertise, such as immigration, climate change, populism, and global trade.

Similarities in language and culture, along with pre-existing audiences, make Australia an appealing market with a low bar for entry. “We have a surprising number of subscribers already that is significant enough to justify this kind of investment,” says Cave, “and we feel like we can do better.” The expansion comes after more than a decade of mainstream newspapers and TV stations scaling back on foreign staffers and shutting down foreign bureaus due to economic pressures. Over the same period, digital players have moved in the other direction, opening a wave of foreign outlets. Vice News now operates in 34 countries worldwide, The Huffington Post in 18, BuzzFeed in 11.

The arrival of these outlets in Australia has diversified a media ownership market that has historically been one of the most concentrated in the world, dominated by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Fairfax Media, and an extensive public broadcasting network. “There’s been a real hunger for alternate voices in the Australian media landscape for some time,” says Dunlop.

Cave could pick up a few tips from BuzzFeed Australia, which celebrated its third anniversary at the end of January. The site has been successful in carving out a niche for its mashup of humorous listicles and hard news by breaking ground on under-covered beats that reflect the country’s diversity. Scottish journalist Simon Crerar, who heads BuzzFeed’s editorial operation in Australia and was in Cave’s position not long ago, watched the kangaroo Twitter exchange with amusement. “Australians being Australians, everyone completely took the piss out of the logo,” he says. “I saw the senior editor laughing about it a little bit on Twitter, so I think very quickly he’ll understand the mindset of Australians and our great desire to have a lot of fun.”

Like Cave, Crerar also approached his Australia posting by listening, starting small, and then building on what worked. “In that first year we were very focused on the ‘buzz’ part of what we do,” Crerar says. “It was very much an experimental year of trying a whole load of different stuff and really building a mental map of the kind of content that our core audience engaged with.” As Crerar built out the team with news reporters and political journalists, BuzzFeed earned praise for its staffing decisions, as well as a couple of Walkley Award nominations. (The Walkleys recognize excellence in Australian journalism.)

 

“There’s been a real hunger for alternate voices in the Australian media landscape for some time.”

 

“I think the people who are running BuzzFeed in Australia are some of the smartest in Australian media,” says Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. “BuzzFeed, let’s face it, floats on a tide of light entertainment….But when they’ve made serious editorial decisions, they’ve been very good ones.” Bringing on dedicated reporters to cover Indigenous affairs and LGBTQ issues before most other outlets had done so signaled that BuzzFeed was ahead of the game, says Simons. “It’s a very diverse society,” says Crerar. “People share stuff that’s related to their own personal experiences, their personal identities, their own particular views on the world, and that’s allowed us to approach building an audience here in Australia a different way from sites that we’re competing with in the existing media.”

BuzzFeed hasn’t completely avoided the kangaroo, however. “We have this newsletter, which we started about a year ago, called ‘Meanwhile in Australia.’ It is very much playing into the caricature of Australia as this crazy place where it’s a miracle that any of us are actually alive,” says Crerar, who recently wrote a book in the same vein titled 88 Reasons Why Australia is the Craziest. Scott Lamb, BuzzFeed’s vice president of international, wouldn’t comment on whether the Australian site, which draws a unique monthly audience of 1.8 million according to Nielsen, is profitable, but he noted that this month BuzzFeed Australia will move to a new office space in Sydney to accommodate a team that has grown from 3 to 32 (22 of whom are editorial staffers).

The Guardian, which is more aligned with the kind of journalism one might expect from The New York Times, opened in Australia in February 2013 and now sits comfortably in Nielsen’s top 10 Australian news sites. Currently ranked sixth, behind more established local sites run by News Corp, Fairfax, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and recent newcomer The Daily Mail, The Guardian garners a unique monthly audience of 2.6 million. With a newsroom of more than 50 editorial staff, The Guardian Australia populates a local homepage with national and international news, politics, and cultural coverage that acts as a gateway into the wider site.

Cave expects that the Times’s vast international network will set it apart in Australia. Following news of Trump’s interactions with the Australian prime minister and the noises he has made about military action in the South China Sea, Australian audiences are likely to hunger for news about how his decisions will affect them. “I’ve been fascinated by how much [Trump has] come up in conversation here with people at every strata of society,” says Cave. “From the taxi driver who watched all the debates during the campaign to senior officials and business people who want whatever inside dope you’ve got.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michelle Innis.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.