Peter Coleman: A chance to shine for Catalano's Canberra Times

Most of those who care not only about freedom of the press, but about balance in the media, have their fingers crossed for Antony Catalano.

There's an election on, and as it happens I'm writing this from the other side of the world, but no matter, the issues are bigger than that.

If print media still matters - and I believe it does - the firepower the Murdoch camp brings to the fray is out of all proportion to that of the disorganised alternative viewpoint. Forget the crap we've all been told about Murdoch editors being free to make up their own minds; having diametrically opposed views to the boss is not a formula for career success.

Printers at one of News Corp's plants made an involuntary comment earlier this month when they slipped a couple of pages from the somewhat Leftly-orientated Sydney Morning Herald into that morning's (Sydney) Daily Telegraph. By mistake, of course.

The big question is whether Antony Catalano has a snowflake's chance of redressing the balance... or the will, for that matter.

Over the years, Fairfax Media - with at times, what we have called "the inmates running the asylum" - had pretty much abdicated from the position it once held as "one of the world's great newspapers", and nothing positive seems to have changed with its acquisition by Nine Entertainment.

News having effectively set the scene with its support of media law reform - even if it managed to drop the ball on the Ten Network - change is now filtering through, not that it seems to have made much difference to balance. All three of the national, metro and community papers available at the GXpress office on Queensland's Sunshine Coast now belong to Rupert, instead of just two of them. And as commentary following the print mess-up seemed to be noting, Sydneysiders find the Herald ain't what it used to be.

Does 'The Cat' have a chance of changing that? Investment in talent and technology are key to a bold plan to reincarnate the Canberra Times - another masthead which has been allowed to fall on hard times - as the flagship of a new cross-platform media empire.

Former Domain boss Catalano and backer Thorney Investments' Alex Waislitz picked up the national capital daily in the package of 160 mastheads and websites that was Fairfax Media's - and lately Nine Entertainment's - Australian Community Media division.

And in an interview somewhat ironically with Andrew White, an associate editor on The Australian - Rupert Murdoch's national broadsheet - he disclosed ideas on rebuilding the "run down" masthead he says has been turned into a mere regional paper.

There's confidence (we hope) here as well as the irony in spilling plans to an employee of Murdoch and his 'no prisoners taken' team at News Corp Australia. But no matter, Catalano has faced down powerful opponent in the past.

And echoes of previous efforts in Canberra - the post-Federation seat of power created in the back blocks of rural New South Wales because neither of the two biggest capitals would let the other have it.

Seven West owner Kerry Stokes - whose interests today are in television and newspapers, as well as tractors and plant hire - had a go in Canberra a couple of decades back, investing in new printing plant and making the newspaper a centre of excellence for journalism with some of the most respected names in the industry on its payroll.

It didn't work, perhaps because Rupert Murdoch, who had started national daily The Australian in Canberra, was also investing, having quickly taken the pragmatic decision to move the paper to Sydney. But those were very different days, Murdoch having to tackle Australia's 'tyranny of distance' by flying flongs - the papier maché moulds then used to make printing plates - from city to city.

Digital publishing and the technology that supports it removes such physical restraints, and creates an opportunity which is still emerging to publish anywhere, any time. And to pitch advertising to readers wherever they are.

There's also a growing willingness on the part of those readers to pay for journalism, either through some form of subscription or as The Guardian has shown, by responding to the proffered begging bowl.

In that context, The Australian is competition, but its virtual monopoly not to everyone's liking, a reality to which Morry Schwartz is responding with The Saturday Paper, and two new digital daily 'newspapers' announced last week.

Can Catalano capitalise on this sentiment and build a mini Washington Post with national and international significance out of proportion to Canberra's green and pleasant, but very modest geographic print catchment?

At Publish Asia last week I noted encouraging signals: the well-funded South China Morning Post is not alone in responding to the demand for knowledge and a different view of Chinese affairs, and trustworthy publishers are also experiencing a renaissance globally. Both the SCMP - which belongs to Jack Ma's Alibaba Group - and Jeff Bezos' personally-owned Washington Post see this in their own markets.

A problem for the Canberra Times has always been the city's split personality, as despite its statistically high household wealth, publishers found it hard to command the premium advertising needed for a top quality print-based publication and resorted to the lower denominator of being a "regional paper" for its less politically-focussed readers.

Catalano noted in his interview that the once highly regarded title had been run down, and outlined a revamp of it as part of an investment in journalism and sales across the group to grow revenues and readership.

The digital environment broadens vistas, and while undoubtedly a print edition lends stature, the future is digital with its unique opportunity to "know" each reader and personalise every aspect of the offering for them.

This route to revenue was outlined at the Singapore conference by Holly Wainright, with the uplifting story of Mamamia's podcast successes, an intimate medium which lends itself to the direct narrowcasting of advertising, and there's a hint that Catalano has got this.

In his comments to Andrew White, he talked not only of investment in journalism and but also enabling technology and people, an alternative to the perpetual cost-cutting which has characterised much of newsmedia management in recent years. He's also up for the investment in sales that would also be needed to generate necessary extra revenue.

However, Catalano currently has more than 100 other mastheads to consider, and the challenge of building them into a complementary business, rather than a distraction.

A review of the whole portfolio is slated, and what can't ben fixed will clearly be dealt with otherwise, Catalano admitting elsewhere that the real estate value in the package secured and underwrote other options, if necessary. There's been talk that ACM might look to acquire some of the geographically-complementary regional mastheads News Corp acquired from APN or already owned - of which there are a dozen dailies and five times many communities - but it's hard to believe that Murdoch is ready to part with anything of value, anytime soon.

Print capacity needs constant review, and this will go hand-in-hand with decisions about the print titles within ACM (can we call it something else, please?). While Fairfax had "consolidated" production relentlessly before the sharing agreements with News - which prompted and enabled Fairfax's Ormiston and Beresfield closures, these moves were mostly focused on metro titles... and the sale to Nine, contemporary attitudes to deadlines and a willingness to truck papers long distances do make the nine print sites seem a lot.

Catalano will certainly have the capacity he needs, including the ability to print glossy products in both Canberra and at the flexible North Richmond (NSW) site.

Consolidation if the ACM and News regional and community titles were brought into one company is another matter, and he makes the point that only four of the 250 titles across the two groups overlap, perhaps making some closures possible without the competition regulator objecting too much.

Put together, the Canberra and regional opportunities present are a huge management task, and - as Nine has with Fairfax - there will doubtless be some rationalisation. They do, however, add up to one of the more interesting propositions in Australian publishing for a while; we wish 'The Cat' good luck, goodwill and the intestinal fortitude the job demands.

Peter Coleman

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