Horton print closure puts independents under pressure

Independent publishers in Queensland, Australia, have been scrambling for new printing arrangements after the news that Horton Media was to close.

In one case, the new owner of the Coolum & North Shore Advertiser took over the Sunshine Coast paper one week and learned she needed to find a new printer the next.

Horton Media chief executive Matt Horton says their Naranga, Brisbane, coldset printing business had been "losing altitude" over the last couple of years, despite capacity reductions by major players. And he says Fairfax Media - which he blames for destroying the market with "grossly anti-competitive behaviour" - is itself running its Ormiston plant at a fraction of capacity.

With rival quotations at half of what he calls "accepted prices", he says Horton decided there was no longer a future in commercial newspaper printing in Australia, a market they entered from New Zealand 11 years ago.

"We took a cold, hard look at it and decided, 'what if we win the war of attrition, what's the prize?'" he says. "Nobody ever goes back to higher prices once they've paid less."

Yet that is exactly what independent Queensland publishers are being forced to do after being given as little as three weeks' notice to find another printer. Publisher of the Sunshine Valley Gazette Kerry Brown says she is waiting for alternative quotations and "expects them to be expensive".

"What's the future going to look like with higher printing costs and the possible addition of freight from Sydney."

With one fortnightly, one bimonthly and plans to start another, Kerry Brown had just sold the Coolum & North Shore Advertiser to Michelle Box when the two were confronted with the Horton Media closure. "Nobody's said no they won't print for us, but the issue is going to be freight," she says.

Star News Group's two Queensland mastheads, Noosa Today and the Southern Free Times in Warwick - both of which are heatset productions - have already confronted that problem after being told by their contract printer, News Corp Australia that there was now "no room" on the former APN Print presses in nearby Yandina.

Phill Le Petit in the Victorian-headquartered publisher's Noosaville office said moving production to Fairfax Media's hybrid print in North Richmond, NSW, had meant bringing deadlines forward by half a day. He didn't talk about prices.

Copies of the 23,000-circulation free paper were being trucked to Brisbane and then forwarded to Noosa for the first time tonight.

Star News Group managing director Paul Thomas told GXpress the issue of sourcing production became more difficult as the number of players was reduced. "In Queensland, there are really only the two big players, News and Fairfax. The gloss market has also tightened up following the mergers of several major heatset players last year."

Star's long-term relationship with Fairfax Media - with which it was once a partner in Victorian print unit Border Mail Printing - has proved an asset in placing the printing of its Queensland titles.

While having his own problems to consider, Matt Horton is concerned about the impact reduced capacity will have on community newspapers: "The biggest losers are going to be the independent publishers," he says.

"Some customers will have to go interstate or to other processes - such as heatset or sheetfed - with corresponding increases in cost and the effects that will have on their businesses."

A member of the family which once owned the New Zealand Herald - now part of APN spin-off NZME. - Horton says market conditions are "more rational" across the Tasman, although there had been similar problems prior to Fairfax's North Island print closures.

For Horton Media Australia - anchored on a press acquired with the purchase of a local NZ competitor - Matt Horton says the company was breaking even: "It wasn't dire, but we knew it wouldn't get any better than this."

Noosa Today's Phil Le Petit's advice is to "keep punching. As I was once told, 'Your'e either the predator or the prey'," he said.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Michelle Box and Kerry Brown learned they needed to find a new printer five days after the paper changed hands (Photo from the Coolum and North Shore Advertiser's Richard Bruinsma)

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