'Perhaps unfortunate' News was allowed to buy APN, says ex boss

Mark Jamieson is among the many blindsided by News Corp's decision to stop printing most of its regional daily, weekly and biweekly newspapers in Queensland.

Not only did he once run most of them - as chief executive of APN Australian Publishing - but he now has an intimate knowledge of one of the state's fastest-growing areas, as mayor of the Sunshine Coast regional council.

He's also cast doubt on News Corp's decision to close the print edition of the Sunshine Coast Daily, while leaving the Toowoomba Chronicle unscathed.

Detail is scarce at the moment, but the expectation is apparently that at least some suburban and regional papers will not have their own standalone websites but will be housed within the metropolitan newspaper in their home state, meaning that of the Courier-Mail in Queensland.

Apart from the Sunshine Coast Daily (based in fast-growing Maroochydore), News will close the print editions of most of the former APN dailies, including the (Ipswich) Queensland Times, Gympie Times, (Maryborough/Hervey Bay) Fraser Coast Chronicle, Warwick Daily News, (Mackay) Daily Mercury, Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, Gladstone Observer, Bundaberg News Mail, and in NSW, the Tweed Daily News, Ballina Advocate, Byron Shire News, Coffs Coast Advocate, Grafton Daily Examiner and (Lismore) Northern Star.

Print "survivors" in Queensland include the Cairns Post, Townsville Bulletin and the Gold Coast Bulletin - all from the established News stable - plus the Toowoomba Chronicle. Check the full list here.

Jamieson (right), who enjoyed a 29-year career in newspapers between 1981 and his election in 2012, says he finds it hard to understand why the Sunshine Coast Daily (print edition) would be closed "and other smaller markets effectively continue".

His boss, APN News & Media was formed when Rupert Murdoch was forced to sell the former Provincial Newspapers Queensland business acquired with the Herald & Weekly Times in 1987, first to the family of Heinz chief Tony O'Reilly, and has since undergone a number of changes of control.

Jamieson, who was a board member of the Pacific Area Newspapers Publishers Association, left APN in 2009, and counts among his successors - before News Corp took over the company's regional mastheads in 2016 -Michael Miller, now the Murdoch company's Australasian executive chairman.

With perhaps only modest understatement, Jamieson says it was "perhaps unfortunate" that News (then News Ltd) was allowed to take over the newspapers "at a time when they would have perhaps been better off in the hands of private operators.

"They may have sustained their longevity by having a much closer empathy with the community they serve."

No-one is denying that things are currently tough, but if last weekend's editions of News Sunshine Coast mastheads are anything to go on, it's questionable whether they are so tough as to justify the permanent print closures.

The fatter, flagship titles are the six-days daily Sunshine Coast Daily - launched in the 1980s as a successor to the 77-year-old Nambour Chronicle - and the free biweekly Noosa News, although News is also closing the free Buderim Chronicle, Caloundra Weekly, Coolum News, Nambour Weekly and Kawana/Maroochy Weekly in the Coast area. All will cease print editions at the end of this month.

Last Saturday's Sunshine Coast Daily Weekend - which has a cover price of $2.50 - was a 76-page newsprint edition with 28 pages of advertising, if you don't count the Ladbrokes racing, the News Corp 'house' ads and Foxtel editorial promotions; plus the Weekend Magazine with another four pages of advertising; plus the glossy 36-page RealEstate supplement (36 pages at a 65 per cent ad loading) and a Pillow Talk catalogue. Friday's $2.00 edition ran at 52-pages of which 15 were advertising and another nine Ladbrokes.

Noosa News' Tuesday edition is certainly suffering at present, but the Friday paper ran 56 pages at 52 per cent advertising - plus the Kayo 'house' ads - and a 48-page real Estate section with 29-pages of ads.

There'll be deals and discounts in that, but you'd have to be pretty desperate to sacrifice the product to get through the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst of which shows signs of ending.

New Emma figures published yesterday put the 'AIR print readership, Apr 19-Mar20' of the Sunshine Coast Daily at 43,000 during the week and 29,000 on Saturdays. That of the Chronicle (more of that later) is quoted at 39,000 on weekdays and 40,000 on Saturday.

Aspects of its history may differentiate the Toowoomba Chronicle from sister publications in News Corp, and even the former APN Australian Regional Media business. Mergers in 1922 and 1970 helped shape the company which APN only bought into in 1988, and didn't own outright until 2007 - when partners related to the old Downs Star sold out ahead of APN's $9 million investment in new presses (since removed) - and led to Toowoomba being treated as a special case. Publishing unit Toowoomba Newspapers used to produce a range of local and agricultural titles, extending to Gatton, Dalby and Roma.

The Manugraph press so proudly commissioned in Toowoomba in 2008 came out a few years after, and the paper has been printed since at a variety of News Corp sites.

The unlikely and much-vaunted 2018 agreement on 'production sharing' between News and Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment) in fact led to the closure of printing plants in Ormiston and Beaudesert in Queensland, with Nine becoming a customer of News, and with the closure of Horton Media in Narangba, there is now little or no newspaper printing capacity in the state that doesn't belong to News Corp.

It's too early to ask what News' plans are for its remaining sites in the state - the large updated manroland metro plant in Murarrie and $64-million hybrid heatset-coldset line Yandina, the ad-hoc web capacity at the sheetfed plant in Warwick, and presses further north in Rockhampton (Manugraph) and Townsville (manroland Geoman) - and here's not the place to speculate.

The reality is perhaps that News - which makes more and more of its profits from other activities and forms of content - wants out of newspapers, just as APN had, and the pandemic is probably the best opportunity it's going to get of shifting the blame for its exit.

As News Corp's global patriarch Rupert Murdoch gets older, perhaps too he has been less insistent on the continuation of the group's newspapers, especially those he picked up from APN for a $36 million song. He won't however, be looking for a competitor to prove him wrong.

News chief operating officer, publishing Damian Eales - who is also just coming to the end of his term as president of global publishers' association INMA - admits he had "not predicted" last week's actions would come so soon.

News has been lucky with timing - lucky for them that Australians have responded favourably to subscription offers and hard paywalls, winning 80,000 paying readers in Queensland (and 640,000 nationally).

Eales says News has had time to build a "growth engine for hyperlocal digitial journalism" in the suburbs of its metros, and will be able to retain 375 regional journalists after the current cuts. No mention of the ones whose jobs are being shed, as he talks of the "essential value" of a newspaper being in its news, "not the paper it's printed upon".

But for those who believe print adds value, and who saw - and perhaps still see -a business model in regional and local communities for at least a few more years, the opportunity and the challenge have both become that much greater with News' closure announcement, and the likelihood that little or no print capacity may remain for a competitor anyway.

Peter Coleman

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