By Benjamin Law
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The story goes like this: Ernest Hemingway, master of literary economy, is challenged to write a narrative in 10 words or less. Hemingway, of course, comes up with a heartbreaker in six. “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” It’s also been strongly rumoured, however, that Hemingway isn’t the author at all and that the story came from a theatre production about him instead. Whatever the case, the creator of the six-word slayer clearly knew that the entirety of human existence is catalogued in the print classifieds, from the barely contained joys of birth notices to the sunny Sunday horrors of deceased-estate sales.
The print classifieds are certainly a rich reservoir for the banal and the bizarre. In any given issue of the Trading Post’s Queensland edition, you’ll find the usual: cars and computers, fish tanks and barbecues, puppy litters and board games. But there will also be someone’s toilet going for $60 (or nearest offer), a 4.5-cubic-foot front-loader kiln, beef calves of various breeds and used women’s hot pants selling for three dollars each, with emphasis placed on the “USED”. The “Other Pets” section is almost exclusively – inexplicably – occupied by pythons.
Barry Elphick belongs to a generation that has been buying stuff from the Trading Post for most of the publication’s five-decade history. At 68, Barry wouldn’t describe his casual browsing as ritualistic, but what he’s bought over the years has defined and, to some extent, shaped his life. “I’ve been trying to remember what I’ve bought, and it’s surprising,” he says. “You think of a car. Yes, I’ve bought a car. Motorcycle? Yes, I’ve bought a motorcycle. Boat trailer? Yes, boat trailer. A shed? I’ve bought a shed. I’m a bit of a Scotsman where money’s concerned: deep pockets and short arms. Also, I’m a little bit of a believer in recycling.”
However, Barry’s days of leisurely browsing through the Trading Post might be coming to an end and far sooner than people of his generation – or “vintage” as Barry calls it – would expect. In August this year, the Australian reported that the directories arm of Telstra that owns the Trading Post, Sensis, is to axe the print version of the publication, perhaps as early as this month. Ever since Sensis outbid Fairfax in 2004 and paid $636 million for the Trading Post’s 22 print publications and five websites, the venture has haemorrhaged money. Three years after the acquisition, Telstra was forced to reduce the book value of the Trading Post by $110 million because of the print edition’s anaemic sales. A dazzling television campaign last year, which featured both print and online versions, didn’t help; Sensis fired a total of 220 staff members just months later, blaming a large drop in print sales. And the Trading Post’s print-classified call centre in Sydney is now closed.
Steve Carroll, the display-classifieds advertising manager at Brisbane’s Courier Mail, says he won’t be surprised if the print version of the Trading Post is extinct by the time this article goes to print. Carroll, who worked in advertising and classifieds in the UK before moving to Australia, says the classifieds market is volatile worldwide. He’s seen rapidly declining sales in his own department. “For example, jobs,” he says, pointing to the Saturday careers lift-out he publishes, which lies on his office floor. “Tomorrow, we will do 36 pages. Fifteen months ago, we were doing over 100 pages. We’ve lost 60% of our volume in jobs alone.”
Carroll says it’s difficult to know how much of the downturn is because of the economy, which has caused the number of job vacancies to uniformly slip and how much can be blamed on the online shift. One advantage for publishers of classifieds in Australia is that we’re often one step behind the world when it comes to taking up new technologies. Australians are creatures of habit. “When I came over to Australia,” he says, “I was astounded at how big the classifieds sections were, and how the classifieds market has stayed intact. In the UK, we probably spent three years wrestling with how to integrate print and online, and how to stop ad revenues moving onto the internet.”
Still, that clash between platforms in Australia is already at the point where openly declared enemies are forced to make awkward bedfellows of each other. In late 2008, Sensis struck up a commercial agreement with Google – one of its most loathed competitors – enabling Google’s popular mapping programs to search for local businesses through the Sensis-owned Yellow Pages. In Carroll’s department at News Limited, they’ve also consolidated. The print and online classifieds teams, traditionally competitors for revenue, now report to a single boss.
Carroll thinks that print classifieds will definitely be around for at least the next decade. After that, he doesn’t know. Like most ad-men you encounter, Carroll doesn’t seem like the sentimental sort, but he does look upon the industry fondly:
The first newspaper I ever worked on was a weekly newspaper that was published on a Friday, which used to arrive in Lincolnshire at 11 o’clock at night on a Thursday. In other words, people could get the Friday paper on a Thursday night. The queues waiting for the paper were sometimes 150 people deep. People wanted the pick of the best bargains. They wanted to see which houses were on the market; to see the best jobs hours before the rest.
Barry says he’d be sad to see print classifieds go. He likes the garage-sale aspect of the Trading Post’s print version: you never know what you might encounter. You might be looking for a copy of Scrabble, only to discover you really need a guinea-pig hutch. The last thing Barry bought from the classifieds was a motor for his boat: an outboard motor, 40 horsepower. “They were pretty hard to come by,” he says. “You’d ring around all the yards, and no one had them.” Barry eventually found one in the Trading Post. Surprisingly enough, though, he found it in the online version.