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The Australian vows to reel in AFR audience with launch of new business section

The Australian has unveiled the long-rumoured expansion of its business section with the newspaper’s chief executive Nicholas Gray vowing to topple Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review and “become the clear number one” read for leaders of industry.

The Australian Business Review debuted in today’s edition with 12 pages, and now features a new gossip column, Margin Call, while a revamped section on its website will include a live blog, Business Now.

The launch will be supported by a $1 million marketing campaign – which includes in-house channels – with TV ads airing from today and backed by out of home, press and digital advertising.

Australian Business Review – Gray said it will not be abbreviated to ABR although that may be hard to enforce – will be edited by current business editor Eric Johnston, the former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Business Day section, who joined News Corp in August.

Johnston is one of a number of recruits The Australian has lured from Fairfax as it looks to deepen its business coverage to compete with the AFR, and others. Eli Greenblat has also defected to News after a 16-year career with Fairfax to become senior business reporter, while Ben Butler, who was at the centre of a defamation case bought by News co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch in 2012, has also moved camps and will write Margin Call, an attempt compete with the AFR’s well-read Rear Window column, which is edited by Joe Aston who News Corp recently attempted to recruit.

Murdoch settled out of court with Fairfax after Butler made allegations in Sydney Morning Herald’s CBD column about the use of the company jet.

Margin Call, which Gray described as in important element of the section, will run Tuesday to Friday.

He said five commercial staff have also joined from Fairfax since the turn of the year including deputy general manager of sales Vaughan Cottier and head of categories Craig Manning. It has also brought in David Rogers from the Wall Street Journal as markets editor.

ABRGray said it would position The Australian Business Review as the “new home for the best in business” – the strapline for its marketing push – with its team of journalists to be heavily promoted.

“We have hired a few big names, and we hope to hire a couple more, and some have come from the SMH and The Age, although given the amount of copy they share between the three mastheads it’s hard to tell who is working for who,” Gray said in a barely disguised dig at Fairfax.

“But more important than that is a lifting in our overall investment in content. Clearly the Fin (AFR) is a traditional competitor in print but in digital it’s a whole new ball game. There is an incredible array of digital offerings both in Australia and overseas so we are well beyond just worrying about what Fairfax is doing.”

To achieve its ambition to become the business community’s preferred read, Gray admitted it needs to plug gaps in some verticals.

He conceded The Australian had failed to provide “consistently deep business coverage” because of a fluctuating pagination but said it was making a “commitment” to increase coverage to 14-15 pages each day. That will include daily sections including Media on Monday, Technology on a Tuesday – renamed from Australian IT – and Aviation and Legal Affairs on a Friday.

Weaknesses in its coverage of mergers and acquisitions, financial services and the lack of a gossip column will all be addressed, Gray claimed. The M&A column will take the name DataRoom from the Business Spectator.

While admitting the AFR is the market leader, Gray claimed the gap has closed in recent times and will continue to narrow as its own business coverage deepens.

“We have made significant inroads into that market and we are making a commitment that where we have a couple of content gaps they will be filled. We are making a clear statement that this is a separate home for business, separate from our politics and national affairs coverage in the first book.”

In another dig at the AFR, Gray added: “If you look at a 36-page broadsheet paper with 14 or 15 pages of business coverage, that’s effectively 72 tabloid pages for $2.50 which compares very well with 40-48 for $3.50.”

Gray said it would also bring content from Business Spectator “more formally” into its business section with Alan Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz providing in depth commentary and analysis. Despite the increase in content sharing he stressed Business Spectator and the Australian Business Review would retain separate editorial teams.

Online will play a central role in the expanded coverage, Gray added, highlighting the new live blog and “frequently updated content” as key to increasing its number of subscribers.

“Print will be around for a long time to come and we’ll continue to invest in that product but it’s fair to say we’ve a bit of improving to do in digital, particularly the frequency of our coverage during the day and we are committing to do that,” he said.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 8.23.52 AM

The first edition of The Australian from July 15, 1964

The relaunch of The Australian’s business coverage has been on the cards for a while, with an earlier version of the revamped section believed to have been kiboshed by Rupert Murdoch amid concerns over the cost implications.

Gray declined to comment on “individual management discussions that got us to this point” but vigorously rejected suggestions this was a business lite version of the original plan.

“We don’t believe that having the group of journalists that we have, producing 14-15 broadsheet pages every day and a high cadence web presence, can be described as lite in any way imaginable,” he said. “You simply can’t have a commentary page with John Durie, Alan Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz and call it business lite. I don’t accept that premise.

“Clearly in times of structural change you have to be careful about where you invest and the extent to which you invest, but we are upping our investment in business.

“We are hiring new journalists, we are launching new digital products, we are putting a lot of money into a marketing campaign and investing in content. So we don’t consider this lite in any way and we don’t expect our audience to pick up our newspaper and say this is lite.”

He declined to reveal the total investment but claimed it came at time of “momentum” for The Australian. Furthermore, “it will appeal to advertisers”, Gray said.

“Preliminary feedback from an advertising point of view has been very strong. It’s an incremental investment but a measured incremental investment. We are not betting the ranch on this.”

Turning to the choice of name, Australian Business Review, Gray acknowledged it was similar to competitors in the marketplace but denied it would potentially cause confusion.

He said it wanted to include the word “review” partly to reflect the content, namely a review of the previous day’s news.

“But it is also resurrecting the brand from our very first day of publication on July 15 1964,” he said. “What better time to bring back a part of our heritage in our 50th year. We have found a lot of traction and engagement from turning 50 so this is another part of that celebration.

“We also wanted to have a counter point to our digital coverage. We are launching our live blog Business Now so we liked daily review in print and the high frequency with Business Now in digital.”

Gray added the business section was “unambiguously part of The Australian”.

The marketing campaign will feature a 15-second TV advert to air on Sky News and Sky Business while ads will target airports, Qantas business lounges, train stations and in the foyers of offices.

Steve Jones

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