News expands plan for new digital-only battlegrounds

It's back to the barricades as Antony Catalano and Alex Waislitz get ready to take over the more than 160 former Fairfax regional mastheads acquired from Nine Entertainment.

Having recently launched new digital-only titles in former Fairfax heartland in Canberra, Wollongong and to confront the St George & Sutherland Shire Leader in suburban Sydney, News Corp Australia has now announced a digital-only local masthead in Newcastle to launch next month.

It's shades of the naughty noughties when Fairfax had the presumption to launch a new daily, the Central Coast Herald - a spin-off of its Newcastle Herald - for readers in the growing market to the north of Sydney. News Corp responded with not one, but two new 'daily' print titles in retaliation and - as in other similar confrontations - Fairfax pragmatically withdrew.

With no newsprint or distribution costs, digital-only mastheads are cheaper to launch, and News is focusing on areas where it doesn't already have a newspaper. That makes Tamworth, Armidale, Wagga Wagga and Albury/Wodonga possible candidates in NSW, before attention turns further into Victoria (Ballarat, Bendigo?) and South Australia. Lots of potential here!

News' national daily The Australian reports that the new Newcastle title - "expected to be called The Newcastle Telegraph" - will be one of five digital mastheads by the end of July, with more on the drawing board over the next 12 months.

It quotes NewsLocal publisher John McGourty as "reluctant to say where, but we have ambitions to roll out a further four or five in FY20... definitely going to be in areas that we currently don't have a product".

He said the digital-only mastheads - behind the Daily Telegraph paywall - will focus on crime, court, planning development, transport, local health, local schools and local lifestyle - " the most important things for people at a local level".

He believes there is a gap in the Canberra market, and will exclude politics from the list of topics for News' new Canberra Star, while the Catalano/Waislitz Canberra Times is to reopen its parliamentary bureau, something McGourty calls a "lofty ambition".

Game on!

-Peter Coleman

Pictured: Beachhead - Newcastle's ocean baths

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