The New York Times‘ head of communications Eileen Murphy has confirmed to Crikey that The New York Times is “focussed on Australia” in terms of global expansion, but she was coy on further details.

She said the paper was seeing “strong interest in — and demand for — our journalism” in Australia. “We believe there is likely a large community of potential NYT’s subscribers.

“There is not much more I can say about this for now in terms of plans,” Murphy added.

The confirmation follows a report overnight in Politico that said the Grey Lady was expanding into Australia and Canada, following an earlier Spanish-language expansion into Mexico. That report said the company had “dispatched research teams to lay the groundwork and has begun recruiting journalists to build out small newsrooms in both countries”.

The New York Times is already Australia’s 20th most popular news website, according to last month’s Nielsen rankings, with a unique audience of 844,000. It is one of only two overseas news sites to achieve that level of popularity without a local operation (CNN’s Digital Network also has a strong readership here).

This week, the NYT is kicking off two weeks of paid focus groups with current Australian subscribers in Sydney and Melbourne. The Sydney sessions start tomorrow night, while the Melbourne ones start next week. An email sent to Australian subscribers from the Times’ says: “We are looking to learn more about New York Times digital news readers, aged 25-59, in the Sydney and Melbourne area.” Participants are being paid $90-$100 for around two hours of work.

Crikey has not heard of any journalists yet joining or being sounded out about joining the operation, which appears to be in its research stage, but we’ll let you know if that changes.

The Times has in recent months been offering very inexpensive subscriptions ($4 a-month rising to $8 a-month) to Australian readers. It’s also been beefing up its Australian coverage. Today’s piece is a quiz asking readers whether they “speak Australian” — we trust the Times’ editors are studying up. Much of the NYT’s coverage of Australia isn’t currently written by locally-based journalists. The New York Times already has a Sydney correspondent in Michelle Innis, but many of the recent bylines on Australian coverage belong to NYT staffers based in New York or Hong Kong.

The Times’ old strategy with regards to Australia was partly to offer its content relatively cheaply to Australian publishers for syndication. The NYT’s global coverage is still heavily used in the world pages of the Fairfax papers — one would assume this would change if the NYT and Fairfax began to compete directly for advertisers and subscriptions.