Australian regionals purchase piques interest in Catalano's plans

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The most interesting aspect of Nine's sale of its former Fairfax regional newspapers is not the $125 million selling price - which makes the $36 million News paid for APN's Australian regionals look even more trifling - but the potential the duo buying them brings.

Antony Catalano (pictured) is the former chief executive of Domain - the online property business he helped build - while Thorney Investments is the private investment fund of 60-year-old Melbourne billionaire Alex Waislitz and a former Fairfax Media shareholder who would have gained cash and shares from the $4.2 billion merger with Nine.

Catalano, who also has an interest in advertising agency Tomorrow Media Plus - placing media for Domain's largest clients - and had tried to buy Fairfax itself last November.

As well as the newsmedia units which form Australian Community Media - there are more than 160 regional titles including the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury, the (Launceston) Examiner and the (Albury/Wodonga) Border Mail, plus agricultural publications including The Land, Queensland Country Life and Stock and Land - the new company takes control of the former Fairfax printing business.

Reconfigured under director Bob Lockley as part of a $42 million plan to consolidate printing capacity and close (and sell) the city-based Tullamarine (Melbourne) and Chullora (Sydney) real estate - and after the closure of Ormiston and Beresfield foillowing the News deal - they still comprise a substantial network of mostly single-width printing plants around Australia.

Although Nine-owned metros such as The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and (national) the Australian Financial Review are now printed by News Corp in Sydney and Brisbane, the ACM printing unit produces them in most other markets. Upgraded facilities in North Richmond (NSW), Ballarat (Victoria) and Canberra (ACT) are included in the deal.

Nine chief executive Hugh Marks says the sale was part of a strategy for the TV company to exit noncore businesses and focus on high-growth digital assets, but that it will retain a commercial relationship with ACM.

Of the $125 million purchase price, the new ACM business will deliver $10 million-worth of advertising across three years, and the final cash proceeds - subject to "post-completion adjustments" - include $10 million to be paid a year after completion.

Areas of interest around Catalano's involvement include inevitably his future plans - will he seek to purchase News Corp's geographically-complementary regional newspapers; will ACM drive further into digital at the expense of its traditional print-based audience; will he use the platform to make a tilt against the now Nine-owned metro assets, the sale of which he so strongly opposed; or into the property market in which he had so much experience through Domain?

As a publisher himself - and with Alex Waislitz' backing - the former Fairfax property editor and marketing director will be a refreshing new force in Australia's concentrated newsmedia and publishing market.

Peter Coleman

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