This is perhaps not something a journalist should admit, but my favourite part of the newspaper has always been the classifieds. When we would divide the papers on a Saturday morning I would claim the Border Mail and flip straight to the horses and gear section, to circle in red pen anything that caught my eye. Sometimes I’d read them out and Dad, the Dale Kerrigan to my Steve, would always respond: “Tell him he’s dreaming”.
They often weren’t, but I was. You could find anything, or anything that a horse-mad teenager was likely to want, in the classifieds of the Border Mail.
Back then, in the early 2000s, newspapers collected about 96% of the $1.6bn classified advertising market, according to an analysis conducted for Google in 2020. By 2018, just 12% of the then $1.9bn classified advertising market could be found in newspapers. The internet had gutted the classified pages as it had gutted all other advertising revenue sources. The Weekly Times, once a cornucopia of horsey classifieds, stopped publishing its horse pages two years ago.
Now I spend my Saturday mornings trawling Facebook marketplace.
I’m in 34 “buy and sell” groups on Facebook, 33 of which directly relate to horses. I read all the ads in detail and make note of who is posting. In the absence of any active equestrian media in Australia – aside from a few glossy magazines, the biggest of which is Horse Deals, a shiny book of classifieds that has survived through the voyeurism of people like me – the “buy and sell” groups are my gossip line. I know which vets are recommended, which farriers are taking on new clients, which farriers have completed what qualifications (that was a particularly heated debate on one page recently), and how people have set up their properties to manage the mud.
I follow the hay ads to know who had a good season, whose harvest was ruined, and which paddocks were overrun. I know who built a new arena or a new shed, who they used, how much it cost, and whether they did a good job. I know how angry people are about planned fireworks displays (very), and where the town has landed on the development of a new Bunnings store (on the fence). I save posts and screenshot numbers and have built up a contact book of plumbers, electricians, earthmovers, and the guy who is happy to swing past on his large tractor and do jobs that we can’t manage with a wheelbarrow.
The most popular thing we’ve posted so far was a stack of dirty and rusted corrugated iron from an old chook shed, free if you pick it up and load it yourselves. I had to silence my notifications.
The listings in the groups I follow this week include a luxury Landau (a four-wheel horse-drawn carriage) for $5,000; a stack of timber pallets (always very popular); a free old bath that has been used as a water trough; and a Corningware casserole dish with lid and original box for $25,000 (she’s dreaming).
I read these local pages with the same fervour and for the same reason that my grandfather used to read ads for clearing sales in The Land: not because he wanted to buy something, but because he wanted to see what his neighbours were selling.
These pages also play a more direct role in distributing community information. During the floods last year, the pages in my area rallied to find evacuation paddocks and provide transport to retrieve stranded animals. In the 2019-2020 bushfires, local buy and sell pages – which usually had a larger, more engaged and more interconnected following than official channels – shared emergency alerts and located lost people and animals. They coordinated the primary disaster response, offering rooms, loaning generators, and sending teams out to fix fences. And once the fire was out, they helped raise millions of dollars for recovery funds.
That’s still the work of local newspapers and radio, but more and more people see it on Facebook first. The power of these largely unmoderated groups is often not wielded with care – community Facebook groups have incited vigilante attacks and have spread both racism and an overblown sense of panic about local crime rates. Small town gossip can quickly turn sour if left unchecked.
But when well managed, these pages are a lifeline to someone new in a community. They’ve connected me to farmers who have told me how to manage my paddocks, the vet who now handles my panicked texts and the farrier who leaves me on read. Local knowledge that it would previously have taken newcomers like us years to glean is now accessible, if wildly unreliable.
And if nothing else, I now know where to buy a Landau.