EXCLUSIVE: Property sale fires starting gun on Melbourne press project

With the rising value of commercial property set to underwrite a long-cherished project, News Corp Australia has sold its Melbourne print complex and is gathering equipment for its replacement.

With the search for an ideal greenfield site still underway, News is understood to have bought one double-width press for the centre and has earmarked another for it. Lightly-used Ferag mailroom equipment is also understood to have been acquired from another publisher.

Staff have been told of the property sale but News declined to comment on other details - or in fact, that there was a project at all - and the plans will still need approval from News Corp in New York, but GXpress understands the information to be correct. Watch for an announcement in about a month.

It is understood that News is building to meet its own needs given an ongoing commitment to print, and not for a capacity sharing arrangement. Printing at the former Fairfax site in Ballarat, in regional Victoria, had earlier been ruled out because production deadlines would have made it impossible to include AFL football results.

Nine - publisher of The Age in Melbourne - and Australian Community Media are understood have made a contract for its continued production in Ballarat.

The current Westgate Park complex, at which six manroland Newsman 40 presses from Rupert Murdoch's $1 billion 1987 colour press order have been located since 1992 - was sold in April, reportedly for $55 million in a sale-and-leaseback arrangement. An indication of its development value is the sale of nearby 187 Todd Road - at 11,733 m2 about a fifth of the size of the News site, but including a modern 9213 m2 office building - for $26.25 million five years ago.

News has bought the flexible Goss Uniliner T90 double-width press from Ormiston, Queensland, which was made redundant by the capacity sharing agreement between News and Fairfax Media (now Nine) in that state last year.

Virtually identical to the Goss installed at the daily Christchurch Press in New Zealand - and part of the same order - it was only ever lightly used, and passed to Antony Catalano's Australian Community Media with the sale of that business by Nine. Canberra-based general manager printing Jon Clarke confirmed to GXpress that it had been sold, News having shown interest in it earlier.

A second press is understood to be coming from News' Chullora print centre, where smaller print circulations have reduced capacity demands on the newer manroland Geomans installed to replace the original Newsman 40 presses, one five-tower press from the upgrade order having already been redirected to Townsville to upgrade facilities there in 2010.

It's not clear whether a third press is included in the project - the two newer presses and associated mailroom equipment will deliver a substantial increase in speed over the existing presses - but if there is, it's unlikely to be the KBA press mothballed after the closure of the Gold Coast Bulletin plant, which is reserved for another project (see below).

Core mailroom equipment will come from overseas, with the UK - which shares the same mains voltage as Australia - a favourite. Among options (and understood to be the favourite) are the three Ferag lines from The Guardian, which closed its three presses in the elegant Berliner size in Trafford Park (Manchester) and London in 2018, after its print order fell to around 150,000 a day. Redesigned as a tabloid, the paper is now printed under contract by Trinity Mirror.

The Guardian's kit is understood to have included Ferag's Multisert drum technology plus facilities for supplement and commercial leaflet inserting.

The second of News' four new colour newspaper plants - the others were in Adelaide, Melbourne and (after a delay) Brisbane - the $340 million project in Port Melbourne, overlooked by the Westgate Bridge, houses six presses from the 1987 press order which re-equipped not only Australian but also UK print centres (including Wapping).

The manroland line was at the time, the largest newspaper press in the world, its 185-metre press hall serviced by automatic guided vehicles and operators sometimes on bicycles. The first press ran at the end of 1992 with the remainder commissioned by the following Easter.

The six Newsman 40 presses are served by an integrated Ferag publishing system - originally with two inserting drums per folder to keep up with higher press speeds - with delivery to packaging and dispatch via the 24-bay dock.

In addition to the Herald Sun - once regarded as the "jewel" in News Corp Australia's crown - it prints local editions of national broadsheet The Australian, the Weekly Times and other titles.

Also on News' upgrade 'bucket list' is its Adelaide Advertiser print site, which received the first of the Newsman 40 presses from the 1987 order, and a colour upgrade from the addition of towers from the replaced Sydney presses in 2008.

News still has a nine-tower KBA Comet single-width press - considered one of the best in the country and compatible with those in Hobart and Darwin - in storage after the closure of the Gold Coast Bulletin print site in Molendinar, Queensland, and our guess is that it will be heading for South Australia.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: News' Westgate Print Complex in Todd Road, Port Melbourne (photo Google)
Ferag mailroom equipment at one of the UK Guardian's print sites prior to their closure (photo Guardian, Zack Frackelton)

The double-width Goss Uniliner T90 in Ormiston

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