Murdoch's Australian Classifieds Service Is Biggest Yet

By: Steve Outing

Two weeks ago Rupert Murdoch's News Limited launched an ambitious classified advertising World Wide Web site featuring liners from 11 of the media tycoon's major metro newspapers in Australia. You can search ads from the individual papers, in addition to a national database created by aggregating certain categories of ads. In all, between 50,000 and 80,000 ads will be carried daily -- available free to the consumer.

The newspapers involved include the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney; the Herald Sun in Melbourne; South Australia's Adelaide Advertiser and Sunday Mail; Queensland's The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail; Western Australia's Sunday Times; and Tasmania's The Mercury and Sunday Tasmanian. More than 100 other Murdoch papers in Australia are to be added to the service in the coming months. (News Limited owns about 60 percent of the Australian newspaper market).

Last week I interviewed Alan Farrelly, editor of News Limited's News Interactive division, which is responsible for the new Web service, about the strategy behind the project. Farrelly has been with the Murdoch organization for more than 20 years, and has been the top editor of The Australian, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Herald, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and the Sydney News. He also is group editor-technology for News Limited.

Q: What's the motivation for putting all the Murdoch papers' classifieds on the Web?

A: "Basically, Rupert Murdoch said ... in Adelaide last October that 'by this time next year most of our newspapers in Australia, and certainly all our classifieds, will be published on the Web.' This is the first installment to fulfill that promise. As you can see, it contains basic lineage ads from our major metropolitan daily and Sunday newspapers around Australia -- from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. These ads are created on a Cybergraphics system and are reasonably easily accessible."

Q: Will the service include more than just liners?

A: "Our next step is to access ads from other sources, mainly display ads (especially in recruitment, real estate, computers, higher education, etc...) and place those onto the site. This should start sometime in April with our national flagship newspaper, The Australian, and will expand progressively. We are also currently writing another non-frames interface so that people who don't have a Netscape 2.0 browser can access it. This will be operational in two weeks. We will then start bringing our other newspapers' classifieds onto the site: our 86 suburban newspapers (based in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide) and our regional papers (especially Gold Coast, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin).

"Our intention is to be not only the biggest but the best classified site in Australia, so improved functionality, especially in the search engine, is very important to us. We have set mid-year as the deadline for this."

Q: What's the basic revenue model?

A: "At this stage, classified ads are placed on our Web site at no cost to the advertiser. BUT you must advertise in our papers. It's a value-added service. Any revenue comes from the sale of strip ads/sponsorships of which we've got half a dozen at this stage."

Q: Are the papers just raising their classified ad rates in order to support this, with part of the money earmarked for the online service?

A: "No. There's no change in advertising rates in the paper to pay for this, nor is a rise envisaged. This is an investment in the Web on our part. We believe it has vast potential for the future. As News has done many times in the past, we are prepared to invest in loss-making areas where we believe there is future benefit.

"Don't forget it doesn't cost them (the newspapers) anything. The ad transfer is done automatically, and News Interactive bears the cost of site design and hosting. But the papers can make money by selling ads to their individual site. These opportunities will grow as we add more data and functionality."

Q: Doesn't this strategy potentially hurt your printed newspapers, by giving away all of News Limited's classified for free?

A: "Not necessarily. Newspapers have survived film and radio and TV and video and they'll survive the Web. How do YOU like reading newspapers on the Web? The basic strategry is to add more value to our print product AND open up a new medium. And it makes it harder for competitors to nibble at our base product."

Q: How is this different from other newspaper classifieds sites you've seen from newspaper companies around the world?

A: "Bigger than most. It's continental in size. It provides individual databases for individual papers, yet also aggregates many categories to create something entirely new, a national database -- and with a search engine. I don't think anyone has put together a database from so many papers."

Q: How was your traffic during the first two weeks of operation?

A: "About half a million hits in our first two weeks. Don't forget that only a few hundred thousand -- less than 500,000 -- are wired to the Web in Australia at this stage. We're getting in early in a growing market!"

Q: What's the search engine?

A: "We bought a Netscape publishing system. We use Verity."

Q: How many people are involved in this project?

A: "I have been heading up a small team (a programmer, an artist, a journalist -- happily known as the Gang of Four) for a year, messing about with the Web. Late last year News Ltd. formed News Interactive to start developing REAL sites. News classifieds is our first. There'll be more!

"Kate Flamsteed is the development manager, News Interactive. I am the editor. Zeb Rice, originally from Vivid in San Francisco, is production manager. Mark Smallcombe is our main programmer, helped by Patric Collins and Loi Huynh. Bradley Wynne is our HTML wiz. Steve Debrun also from Vivid did the main design. Igor Saktor is our computer artist. Peter Littleboy is our advertising manager. Total staff here is 15."

Movin' On

Nina Bondarook, formerly of Connectsoft, Medio Multimedia, and the Seattle Times, is now associate producer for the Microsoft Network, where she is working in the business and financial area of MSN.

Azeem Azhar has left The Guardian of London's New Media Lab and taken a new position with The Economist.

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