It may only be a sign of the times but rumors surrounding the demise of one of Australia’s favourite weekly publications, in favour of its electronic sister, could have repercussions far and wide. The Trading Post, the bible for classified advertisements for every conceivable product and service, has been published weekly in over twenty regional and specialised variants, for over forty years. In the days before internet and eBay it was THE method of selling things privately. Flicking through the Trading Post was a favourite pastime of many an Australian and, quite often, one of the first publications read.

Telstra’s directories division, Sensis, acquired the Trading Post group for AU$636 million (US$534m) in March 2004, after a bidding battle with Fairfax Media. The purchase included five online sites as well as the print side but the business was soon struggling under the onslaught of more sophisticated online competition. By 2007 Telstra was forced to take an AU$110m writedown on the Trading Post due to weak sales of the print edition. Revenues from the group in the six months to December 2008 were AU$47m, down from AU$65m in the same period two years earlier. Some press reports foreshadowed the demise claiming that Telstra knew little about print and that placing it under its directories division would see the Trading Post as the poorer relative in the Sensis family.

On the other hand, the acquisition may well prove to be a stroke of genius for its online value at generating traffic and revenues. The site was relaunched in May last year to include an online auction service in direct competition to eBay and in a move to evoke some sort of nationalistic fervor against would-be ‘outsiders’ the site was promoted for its ‘Australia only’ content. The print versions now average 469,000 readers a week but the website is managing 1.8 million unique browsers a month and growing.

In March this year, the Trading Post was shifted from Sensis to Telstra’s online unit Big Pond, in a move indicating its future was seen as lying primarily online. Sensis then sacked 150 staff blaming a large drop in print classified sales. In April, Telstra closed the Trading Post print classified call centre in Sydney, costing another 70 jobs.

Telstra claims it is now seeing great benefit from integrating the Trading Post into Telstra Media and is experiencing incremental traffic growth from featuring the Trading Post on Big Pond’s home page and by leveraging Big Pond’s 8 million monthly visitors who may not be using the Trading Post facility. In fact, the Trading Post is already be of the top five favourite download sites on Big Pond.

It is doubtful that the Trading Post saga will be a one-off and it may well be a portent of things to come in all areas of print. The amount and variety of non-print media is growing rapidly. Amazon’s Kindle, Audiobooks, digital magazine services such as Zinio are all proving that the market is ready and willing to take up new technologies. It is also timely, in view of Rupert Murdoh’s recent comments regarding the move from print to digital news content. The need to generate revenues from the new media in order to replace that lost from print sales and print advertising is becoming an issue. Eliminating print may force the issue.

If something as popular as the Training post can successfully move to an all online only format then Murdoch’s stand may be justified very soon as other publications follow suit. After all, people are quite happy to pay for newspapers and cable TV, so why shouldn’t they pay for online content as well? The argument that advertising will continue to generate the revenues required to maintain profitable business may be hard to achieve but it is possible that people may be willing to pay a premium NOT to be bombarded by ads. Whatever the case, the environment should certainly benefit with less trees being chopped down to make paper!