Almost a year after News Corp Australia shut more than 100 print editions – a move which has helped it to an INMA awards nomination – new local newspapers are alive and well in Australia.
On May 27 last year, executive chairman Michael Miller announced the closure of all but one of the print mastheads competition regulator the ACCC had allowed it to acquire from APN News & Media despite submissions opposing the move.
Only the Toowoomba Chronicle – itself the subject of complex ownership agreements – has survived in print, while News has this year rationalised digital coverage, merging some websites with those of its metro mastheads.
In its ‘Project Ella’ INMA awards submission, News tells of the “aggressive education and retention campaign” it launched to convert readers to local digital mastheads and metro newspapers after local print editions ceased. One objective has been to convert 30 per cent of print readers to “new look” regionalised Courier-Mail and (Sydney) Daily Telegraph editions. Awards winners are to be announced during the INMA World Congress this month.
A year after the axe fell, a couple of dozen new print newspapers have been launched and, despite difficult print logistics, are blossoming with the support of local readers and advertisers.
Publisher of the Mackay Local News, and Sentinalnews editions Andrew Stewart says he is “bemused” by those – “largely former big company academics,” he says – who talk of filling in Australia’s ‘media deserts’.
“Some of us have been hard at it since the News closures, either filling lots of the ‘deserts’ with new publications or expanding existing ones into ‘Murdoch holes’,” he says.
Stewart cites the Mareeba Express, Cairns Local News, Mackay Local News, the Today Group papers in Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Gympie, Kingaroy and now Ipswich, the Highlands Leader in Emerald, Southwest News from St George west, and Fassifern Guardian as Queensland examples.
“I don’t think the latecomers will have many deserts left to enter,” he says. “These are interesting times.”
In Ayr, on the northern Queensland coast, publisher (not prime minister) Scott Morrison describes the Burdekin Local News as “one of those new shoots that have sprung up from the departure of NewsCorp”.
The print weekly from the same publisher as Duo Magazine – currently “hibernating” in Townsville – is already up to edition 31, and despite the “culture shock” of moving from monthly to weekly, is laying plans for Local News editions for Bowen and Charters Towers. A “proper paywalled website” is in production and launching in a couple of weeks.
“The newspaper industry is looking pretty exciting now,” he says.
Already active under the Today brand prior to the pandemic and News closures in Noosa, Warwick and Stanthorpe, Paul Thomas’s family-owned Star News Group has grasped a number of opportunities in other towns and cities.
Today is an informal group with directors Thomas, Latrobe Valley Express publisher Bruce Ellen, and sales and marketing consultant Damian Morgan joined by local partners on several projects.
Thomas is a fourth-generation independent publisher, his great-grandfather Albert Edward Thomas having launched the Berwick Shire News and Pakenham and Cranbourne Gazette in 1909. It has newspapers in South East and West Melbourne, Geelong and the Bellarine peninsula, and the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. Star recently branched out into South Australia with the acquisition of the Border Watch in Mount Gambier, which had been closed by the Scott family in the dark early days of the pandemic, and is launching a new Melbourne paper, the Lilydale Star Mail, for Lilydale, Mooroolbark, Chirnside Park and Kilsyth.
All the new Today print titles have a cover price, which Thomas says has been a major factor in their success, the exception in the Today group being the longer-established 22,500-circulation Noosa Today, its glossy real estate supplement underpinned by the larger free distribution.
“It’s a really significant difference,” he says. “Noosa Today is doing well, but imagine what it would be like with a cover price.”
Elsewhere, Today’s prices have been pitched between $2.50-3.50 – higher than readers had been accustomed to pay for their News Corp dailies and more than some thought the market would support, but a price with which Thomas says readers are more than happy.
In Mount Gambier – South Australia’s largest regional city – the 160-year-old Border Watch returned to newsagents at $3 for the 64-page tabloid – against $1.70 previously – despite opposition to the pricing from staff but, as in the case of the new Gympie Today (also $3) “nobody blinked”.
“It’s the beauty of the market, and with big editions and strong local content, people want to pay,” Thomas describing as “amazing” the revenue generated by a cover price.
Not everyone has been so lucky. In northern New South Wales, Antony Catalano’s glossy Northern Rivers Review has dropped its cover price altogether after Australian Community Media launched it as a paid sale news magazine against strong competition including that of the Byron Shire Echo.
Last week, the Today group partnership acquired the printing plant of the former Rockhampton Daily Bulletin from News Corp, which had been shut after the print edition was closed last year, with the first edition of Today’s latest weekly, the Ipswich News, one of the first newspapers produced under the new ownership.
The print facility – halfway between Townsville and Yandina/Brisbane, where News has presses – will help solve a production headache for publishers, several of which have been forced to seek capacity in suburban Sydney, printing at ACM’s substantial North Richmond plant and Spot Press in Marrickville, both of which have both coldset and heatset presses.
However, neither Nine Entertainment – which publishes dailies the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Australian Financial Review – nor Catalano’s Australian Community Media appear to want to be “manufacturing” publishers, with ACM announcing that it will close its North Richmond, currently leaving only Tamworth in NSW.
As News prepares to close its Murarrie (Brisbane) site in favour of printing the daily Courier-Mail and state editions of The Australian in Yandina, that makes independent press capacity in Queensland and NSW a valued commodity.
Says Stewart, “There needs to be less talk of media deserts – which only encourages government and major advertisers to ignore the independent media activity – and more focus on the huge expansion effort despite COVID-19 over the last year”.
Pictured: Queensland and Today mastheads in Paul Thomas’ Pakenham-headquartered Star News Group