It would cut short the proud histories of dozens of newspapers, some of them dating to the nineteenth century, but it was also the opportunity of a lifetime.
A “portfolio review” led to the death – a year ago this month – of more than 100 print titles, a few of which exist in print as a masthead atop the slip page of News Corp’s Brisbane and Sydney metros, while most are gone altogether other than online.
Casualties were mostly dailies which shareholder News had bought from a tired APN News & Media for a knock-down $36.6 million, paid and free weeklies, and its own stable of Melbourne Leader, NSW/ACT NewsLocal, Brisbane Quest and Adelaide Messenger titles, all with their own histories.
In Queensland and northern New South Wales, they had been assembled by generations of families, notably the Mannings, Dunns and Irwins, who had seen both the sense of working together and the value of independence – while not always agreeing about either – until a crazy period, when the Big End of Town was buying and you missed out at your peril.
Something similar had happened down south with Fairfax, HWT and Advertiser Newspapers buying what they could and taking a share of what they couldn’t, as in the case of Roger Baynes’ Messenger freesheets in Adelaide which went to Advertiser – by then owned by Rupert Murdoch – on their founder’s death.
And then treasurer Paul Keating finally gave the nod to Murdoch’s 1987 acquisition of the Herald & Weekly Times with its Advertiser interests, and News had to sell off its controlling interest in the former Provincial Newspapers Queensland’s regional dailies – and a few more things – to satisfy the regulator.
‘Bean baron’ Tony O’Reilly told radio listeners he just “happened to be in the country” when the regional papers – which he turned into Australian Provincial Newspapers (APN) came on the market, for the purchase of which, his Australian family proved a convenient vehicle.
Lessons from history you’d wonder whether Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims – who says he reads The Economist online – has learned.
The recent history is that later APN – now known as HT&E, for Here, There & Everywhere – wanted out of newsmedia, and having spent several years learning every nook and cranny of that business before returning to his former employer, News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller was well positioned to buy it.
Before the ‘portfolio review’ announced on May 27, 2020, and the raft of closures, mostly on June 29, there had been talks with Antony Catalano’s Australian Community Media – itself created out of the Rural Press bit of Fairfax Media that Nine Entertainment didn’t want.
And of course, COVID-19… which not least meant that Catalano had problems of his own. The pandemic decimated a previously-neglected business which was only just learning to stand on its own feet, the boss joking a few weeks back that it was only the government’s decision to allow companies to trade while insolvent that saved them.
Having cut his editorial and commercial teeth in John B Fairfax’s former Rural Press – prior to its 2007 “reverse takeover” of Fairfax – Catalano could see the logic of their complementary geographies and wanted to bring ACM and the former APN titles into a single national group.
With partner Alex Waislitz – and after lengthy negotiations – he couldn’t however, come at paying more than it would cost News to shut them… and the rest is history.
News’ closure of its regional print editions was accompanied by a campaign – known as Project Ella – to “migrate” each community’s often more than a century of print loyalty and community dependency, for which it won second and third places – and a couple of honourable mentions – in INMA’s Global Awards competition last week.
During the July roadshow at its heart, eight editors fronted up in nine regional locations to tell readers that News journalists' dedication and its commitment to local news remained, although print production would cease. A video of the Gympie event shows a mostly-elderly demographic being handed coffee, cakes and carrier bags, while the working of a new app accessing local and regional news is explained.
Joining Gympie Times editor Shelley Strachan are News Regional Media group digital editor Mark Furler and consumer revenue general manager Troy Graham.
“We needed to cement our brands as advocates for their local communities, so developed localised brand marketing plans to positively position our brands in their local communities,” their INMA submission says.
News says more than 600 registered attendees were at the nine locations, with the expectations of 86 per cent met and 87 per cent “more confident” of the digital product after the event, which offered the chance to win a Samsung tablet.
Judges learned that more than two-thirds of attendees were still subscribers, six months later, and regional editions of the metro daily Courier-Mail and Daily Telegraph were performing “significantly ahead of expectation”, converting 46 per cent of June regional baseline sales to metro – well ahead of the target of 30 per cent – adding an average 67,000 incremental papers a week.
It’s been said – perhaps famously by Winston Churchill, but certainly somewhat repeatedly in the past year – that you should never waste the opportunity of a good crisis. COVID was News’ regional digital transformation opportunity, for which Miller and his Australian team have been recognised both by top management and by INMA judges.
In most of the regional communities, new independent print editions have been launched, usually with cover prices and even tighter costings to fill gaps in what was hardly-ever a ‘news desert’. Even News is revisiting (weekly) print in Mackay and Maroochydore, perhaps as a pilot for its Townsville and Toowoomba properties. And so the cycle turns.
Pictured: Gympie Times editor Shelley Strachan – ‘our commitment has not changed’; News Regional Media’s event at Gympie showgrounds, from its INMA Awards submission, including (from top) Strachan with (seated) Mark Furler; (right) Bryce Johns; and (above) Troy Graham