Life in the ol' girl yet as Australian regional titles sold for $115m to Antony Catalano, private equity
The sale of Australian Community Media, with 160-plus regional and rural titles, to real estate marketing guru Antony Catalano is likely to usher in more promising times for newspapers across the expansive continent.
Despite everyone writing off newspapers, including the very bosses who have run some of them, there’s life in the ol’ girl yet.
Catalano, backed by Aussie billionaire Alex Waislitz's Thorney Investments, picked up the massive regional stable for the bargain basement price of $115 million.
Among the titles bringing home the bacon are the Newcastle Herald, The Canberra Times and the often ignored agriculture bible, The Land. These titles with a handful of other daily titles rake in most of the revenue for ACM, formerly Fairfax Regional Media.
Thereafter is a very long tail of lesser titles, many weeklies and bi-weeklies, that seek to serve their disparate communities the best they can with minimal resources.
Not too long ago, some of those big titles alone could have reaped as much as the sum total for the entire regional empire now to be transacted.
The sale tells us quite a bit about the state of print in this country, but let me zone on three insights.
The lack of trust in Facebook and other digital platforms has put a spring back in the step of newspaper publishers
1. Print is profitable
For many media companies, even those with diversified interests, print revenue has remained their big bucket of liquidity. Indeed, revenue has stabilised, and some media companies are back to the sport of beating budget.
Also, the lack of trust in tech titans like Facebook and what we see on social media, along with a lack of real conversion for many digital advertisers, has put a spring back in the step of newspaper folk.
Yes, print is the new digital: print equals credibility, and with that comes real social cachet and results.
The $115 million deal might be the newspaper sale of this decade, but ...
2. This is a better result for the regions than it might’ve been
As long as I’ve been in newspapers, some 35 years, the “local rag” has been a target for critics and others sniping from the sidelines. The reality is that these communities don’t tick like they ought to without a committed and resourced watchdog and informer. The Newcastle Herald and The Canberra Times are great examples of that.
The collective force of ACM’s titles, and their national footprint, is the best thing going for them, especially the little guys. It’s the same principle as John B Fairfax’s old Rural Press, where the big titles subsidised those in the back of Bourke.
If ACM was broken up, we might have seen more media diversity, but the economics just would not stack up for most of those smaller operations.
As well, it goes to follow that a more sophisticated editorial management can bring a “best of breed” news approach and training regime across titles. That means a more professional outcome than leaving a town’s news to a couple of amateur bloggers.
3. The new ACM (Antony Catalano Media?) will need to readjust its gun sights
Two of ACM’s biggest recent failures have been its inability to gain much ground in its digital transformation and to leverage its property footprint.
This has seen realestate.com better position itself. It is manifest where my local glossy free real estate magazine Canberra Weekly is a superior offering in the market.
It has seemed odd to me that ACM has not done more with its bigger titles in this regard, and therefore let other players in.
Well, we know if anyone is going to change that up, then it’s “The Cat”, who has better than anyone incentivised advertisers and leveraged market force. Questions already abound whether Catalano’s purchasing of the regional titles is a Trojan horse for taking on his old stomping ground, Domain. Domain is the current property partner with ACM.
Alongside this, the new operators will need to boldly rethink its wider editorial offering. Anecdotally, the old Fairfax titles are on the nose in many markets where newspapers have suffered hugely reduced resources and pagination.
The knock-on impact has been that some of these mastheads have lost their influence, opening the way up for non-media competitors, such as councils, to eat their lunch with their own DIY newsrooms.
ACM titles are finally requiring their readers to pay for digital content via subscription. NZME’s New Zealand Herald announced similar recently, pleasing the stock market.
With that comes an opportunity for those titles to offer premium content but also a more integrated community experience.
This will require a sound, no-nonsense strategy that combines the best of what we love about print journalism and plugging in those same audiences to richer community experiences. It will need to be a member model in spirit not just theory - akin to what the best sporting clubs offer. Or going back to media, as The New York Times does.
We can expect to see a big shift in the landscape for print in regional Australia
All this is easier said than done. Publishing newspapers remains complex from a production point of view, let alone satisfying fickle audiences that demand instant value for money.
Catalano will bring new focus to Australia’s regional and rural markets. He will do this by supercharging the offering for real estate agents across the country. We may not see the rivers of revenue breaking their banks, but we can expect to see a big shift in the landscape. And the inconvenient truth is that, unless you are the ABC, journalism has to be bankrolled.
Hopefully the ACM sale coincides with a new era where newspapers can stop writing their own obituaries and instead get on with the job they are meant to do - inspiring and informing their communities at every level.
* Stuart Howie is the author of the new book, The DIY Newsroom. He is a former editorial director of Australian Community Media, and former editor of The Courier, Ballarat, Illawarra Mercury and former deputy editor of The Canberra Times.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media and is the author of The DIY Newsroom. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.