News cuts: Questions begging as the community suffers

"It's the community who will suffer the loss," Tom Offermann takes time out from marketing another $20 million property to tell me.

He's talking about News Corp Australia's decision to axe 102 printed newspapers including the Noosa News, in the property insert of which his firm is a regular and prolific advertiser.

"Less for us, we're on 20 websites, have our own printed magazine - which we'll expand - and have a database of everyone we've ever met or talked to. It's the community," he says.

Somewhat strangely, the biweekly Noosa News is still in print together with its branded real estate supplement running at 48 glossy pages last Friday (May 22), though the writing is on the wall in Michael Miller's statement. It goes digital-only on June 29, along with more than 100 others; only the Hobart Mercury, NT News, Cairns Post, Townsville Bulletin, Gold Coast Bulletin, Toowoomba Chronicle and Geelong Advertiser - plus a trio of upmarket Sydney suburbans - will continue to publish both in print and digitally.

Watching from the back-blocks of the Noosa shire, where GXpress is put together, you'd wonder at some of these decisions. How come the Noosa News lasted in print weeks after others had been suspended; why is the daily Toowoomba Chronicle staying in print while the Sunshine Coast Daily - which also has a glossy real estate section for its 35,000 weekend readership - is being shut down?

More broadly, why did talks to sell many of these publications to Antony Catalano's Australian Community Media group fail? Why are the two biggest shareholders in Australian Associated Press also shutting that down?

In a word perhaps, competition.

At the national level, News Corp's regional cluster of strong regional dailies and former APN regional titles - mostly in Queensland and northern NSW - nicely complements the ones Catalano bought from Nine Entertainment, and would strengthen it as a competitor. Instead, News plans to add more digital-only mastheads in ACM territory. ACM, incidentally is a customer of AAP, although only a minor shareholder.

And there's the microcosm of Noosa Heads 4567. News picked up the Noosa News with the rest of its $36 million bargain bundle when APN News & Media wanted to get out of the 'news and media' bit, killing off the weekly Noosa Journal it had picked up from habitual publication-launcher Lindsay Bock along the way.

But by 2020, there was a problem, in the form of Noosa Today, now owned by Pakenham (Victoria)-headquartered Star News Group, which also owns a weekly in Warwick. And in its glossy format, it had been been doing rather too nicely.

Until News Corp, trading as APN Print, "hadn't got a slot" to print it any longer. Bad luck, when both the former Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment) plant at Ormiston, and Kiwi Matt Horton's Horton Media in nearby Narangba were also closing. With only sheetfed capacity available to it in the state, things have got tougher at the Star outpost, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could be critical.

I wrote this morning that many might regard these widespread cuts as an abdication of the responsibilities assumed when the Murdoch-owned group acquired these mastheads, some of which have been published for more than a century; having positioned itself in some parts of the country - notably Queensland - as effectively the only print news publisher, as a betrayal of trust. Michael Miller blames News' 'predicament' as much on digital giants such as Google and Facebook as the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reality is that Australia is suffering today for having let News Corp into such a dominant market position.

It's Miller - who as chief executive, learned his way around APN in a three-year stint there after an 11 year career with News - who in many local communities, especially throughout Queensland, is offering a choice between News' hard paywall... or go without. No wonder News is giving the ABC - with its free app and website now the first-line alternative for many audiences - such a hard time. But if prime minister Scott Morrison's government wants a sympathetic press and another term, they too, will have to watch out.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Going, going... Having cut its page depth this month, News will cut the paper altogether in June

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