Catalano looks to beef up digital marketplaces to put locals first

Catalano's digital marketplace agenda targets growing regional market

Agribusiness
Australian Community Media co-owner Antony Catalano at the Farm Writers Association of NSW forum talking to the company's previous chairman and managing director during its publicly listed Rural Press era, John Fairfax and Brian McCarthy.

Australian Community Media co-owner Antony Catalano at the Farm Writers Association of NSW forum talking to the company's previous chairman and managing director during its publicly listed Rural Press era, John Fairfax and Brian McCarthy.

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Regional Australia needs a strong local media, backed by regional Australians shopping locally online, says Antony Catalano.

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Its name sounds as Australian as kangaroos and kookaburras, but in reality the prominent online classified marketplace Gumtree repatriates its considerable Aussie profits all the way to Norway.

Gumtree, part of the world's largest online classified advertising business, Adevinta, is typical of a variety of powerful overseas players which regional media boss Antony Catalano says are syphoning big money from ordinary Australian communities.

Until recently classified and trading advertising underpinned much of the cash flow which funded community journalism and the local publications which championed the issues and broke news important to regional Australia.

However, today's new digital classified "marketplaces" were now dominated by foreign giants with little empathy for the sort of news or local people making life tick in regional communities.

Stay loyal, stay local

Mr Catalano, who part owns about 170 regional, suburban and agricultural print and digital publications (including Farmonline), hopes he can convince regional dwellers to stay loyal to their local online trading platforms when buying or selling new and used cars, machinery or household goods.

The Australian Community Media principal told a recent Farm Writers Association of NSW forum while most Australians quite reasonably believed Gumtree was an Aussie business, it was founded overseas, as were numerous other widely known trading and shopping platforms including eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Trivago and Expedia.

Gumtree, whose ultimate majority owner is Norwegian media company Schibsted Group, also owns the automotive classified and editorial sites Autotrader and Carsguide.

It was originally established in London as a classified marketplace for expatriate Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, while rival behemoths Facebook and eBay are US-based.

We want to build a classified marketplace that's relevant to our audience. - Antony Catalano, Australian Community Media

With regional Australia's population rising from 8.8 million residents towards 10.8m, the Catalano vision is to take full advantage of his company's close ties to a fast growing digital audience of almost 8m a month and a print publication circulation of 4.4m.

That includes ACM's 77 per cent stake in the digital marketplace portal, Realestateview.

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The realestateview.com.au partnership established last October specifically to build a national regional property market brand, potentially also expanding into livestock and general classified markets.

"We're not necessarily looking to compete with AuctionsPlus - we'd want to be friends," Mr Catalano said.

"We want to build a classified marketplace that's relevant to our audience.

"If we can get communities to support our local trader and classifieds platforms, we can use those proceeds to support local news services in the same way good journalism at the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age was once supported by $200m a year in print classified advertising.

"They'll be backing their own publications - the heart and soul of these communities."

To help fund its digital agenda ACM was scaling back its "manufacturing" assets, outsourcing its printing needs and redirecting capital previously associated with its seven print sites towards a multimedia business expansion.

Prime opportunity

This included looking to leverage opportunities from the big regional publisher's 19.9pc ownership stake in regional television business Prime Media.

Prime has a viewing area spanning the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Queensland's Gold Coast, regional Western Australia and the NSW Central West, New England, North Coast and Riverina, overlapping ACM's dominant newsprint and online business footprint in south eastern Australia and WA.

"We're trying to build as much reach as possible into regional markets at a time when many people are realising that although the city isn't a bad place to live, there are lots of regional places which are nicer - including Wategoes Beach at Byron Bay," he said.

Television also offered potentially cost effective opportunities to combine with ACM's regional newsrooms in the future.

It could also give country journalists the chance to develop new skills across different mediums.

Those options may make it more conducive for regional reporters to stay working in country Australia rather than looking to the big smoke for career advancement.

Mr Catalano noted how metropolitan television giant, the Nine Entertainment Company' had achieved a diverse and sustainable business platform by combining with Fairfax Media's newspaper, digital and radio assets two years ago, creating a new confidence in its newsrooms where staff cuts and uncertainty once prevailed.

Agricultural strength

Meanwhile, underpinning ACM's audience and revenue strength was its stable of eight big agricultural publications and agricultural events businesses, led by The Land and AgQuip in NSW.

"We realise how critical that agricultural division is to our business and how agriculture as an industry sector indirectly employs about 2.5m people," he said.

"Our agricultural titles reach one in five people in an industry on track to be worth $100b to the national economy.

"I'm no agriculture expert, but I think I can play a big role in helping promote the issues that involve this industry and provide a voice to the people who make it work.

"Any government that wants to ignore a $100b sector with so much going for it, does so at its peril."

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