News bets on digital, closing a massive list of print newspapers

What may prove the biggest bloodbath since Rupert Murdoch's 1987 takeover of the HWT is foretold in an announcement by News Corp Australia today.

Executive chairman Michael Miller lists regional dailies in Hobart, Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, the Gold Coast, Toowoomba and Geelong as the only regionals to survive in print and digital formats, while major (unannounced) changes to metro dailies are expected.

A new executive structure was announced earlier this month, and with consultants Deloitte having had time to run a ruler over plans, the new shape of News is beginning to emerge.

Miller doesn't quote numbers - only to say that "more than 375 journalists will be specifically covering regional and community news and information", but reports overnight suggested overall staff cuts of up to 30 per cent, amounting to perhaps 600-1000 jobs.

How many will go is not clear from today's announcement, but Miller says "thank you and farewell" to those impacted, effective June 29, when "the bulk of News Corp's regional and community titles" would move to purely digital publishing.

"Today's announcements ... will mean some job roles will change and regretfully, will lead to job losses... and (he) wanted to thank them personally for their professionalism, dedication and contribution.

"They have provided News with invaluable years of service. Their passionate commitment to the communities in which they live and work and their role in ensuring these have been informed and served by trusted local media has been substantial," he says.

Most of today's announcement is focussed on suburban, regional and community titles, but expect News' mighty metros to morph gradually into 'slip editions' of a popular national daily as the Daily Telegraph, Herald-Sun, Courier Mail and The Advertiser share more content under national executive editor Peter Blunden, whose responsibilities were expanded last week.

After Antony Catalano's Australian Community Media dropped the ball last week on a rare potential opportunity to pick up a portfolio of News' regional mastheads which complements its own, it can now expect increased digital competition from News, which has already launched digital-only titles in key ACM territories such as Canberra, Newcastle and Wollongong.

News suspended print editions of 60 newspapers in April in response to pandemic-driven falls in advertising, and is expected to kill up to 100 titles permanently.

Hints of the shape of News Corp Australia's print future came last week when general manager of production Marcus Hooke spoke of expectations of lower pagination - typically 16- 24 page products - "but of high volume". During a WAN-Ifra World Printers Forum webinar on COVID-19 production impacts this month, he said that while newspaper sales at retail agents had fallen, sales at supermarkets and convenience stores had seen a "substantial uptick". News recently started selling its newspapers at Chemist Warehouse pharmacy outlets throughout the country, to the disappointment of newsagents.

Hooke also flagged "major changes" in News' property footprint, as the company discovered it could "work in a completely different way and do several things remotely", balancing the benefits of maintaining collaboration with those of "potentially having a lower footprint".

While Hooke said substantial differences were not expected at the print centres, changes are already on the cards in Melbourne - where News is currently building a new greenfield print site in Truganina - and Adelaide, where a tentative plan to replace ageing double-width equipment with a new plant based on the KBA press plucked from the Gold Coast Bulletin will become more attractive as print demands dwindle. National logistics are also under scrutiny, with plans to revamp primary and secondary distribution networks when restrictions are relaxed.

Following agreement on production-sharing in Queensland and New South Wales, News has become by far the dominant player in newspaper printing in those states, a situation which also strengthens its position, effectively depriving competitors of the means of production.

Today's announcement will also drive reorganisation in areas such as North Queensland, where News will want to maintain production for its metro and national titles, but see closures in other localities.

Peter Coleman

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