The Canberra Times will change hands once again after being sold off as part of the Nine/Fairfax media merger. Former Domain real estate boss Antony Catalano and Thorney Investments are part of a company that will pay $115m for the Australian Community Media and Printing group.
The group includes multiple regional mastheads and assets that Nine boss Hugh Marks described as “non-core businesses” which the company would dispose of in order to focus on “high growth digital assets”. The deal includes a further $10m in ACM advertising over the next three years.
Nine has announced cash proceeds from the sale are expected to be around $115m, of which $10m will be paid in 12 months, and the sale is expected to be completed by 30 June of this year.
Commercial relationships will remain intact for the time being and content sharing arrangements between the ACM mastheads and the major metropolitan titles will continue, meaning The Canberra Times will continue to derive a substantial part of its content from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Financial Review for now.
The Audited Media Association of Australia reported in February this year that its December 2018 audit saw circulation for most major print publications fall by around 10 per cent for the 2018 calendar year.
The Canberra Times suffered an 8.9 per cent circulation decline in the 2018 calendar year, falling to 13,808. Weekend falls were particularly sharp, as the Canberra Times slumped 10.8% to 20,881 on Saturdays, and 14,126 on Sundays. The decline continues an established pattern for the newspaper.
While there’s been much speculation that the ACM group would be further broken up for resale depending on the purchaser, media analyst Tim Burrowes of the Mumbrella media analysis site says the Catalano deal could prove worthwhile for The Canberra Times.
“The most strategically important things for Nine in the Fairfax acquisition were their share in the Stan video streaming service, the radio assets and Domain”, Burrowes says. “They made no secret of the fact that they weren’t very interested in regional assets like The Canberra Times.
“Nine didn’t see these as bad assets, necessarily. The argument was that with the right owner they could thrive at the right price and the Canberra Times deal looks like a bargain to me. Run it profitably for a few years and you’ll pay yourself back, so you can see why private equity with the right partner would find it attractive”.
But, Burrowes says, while the finances could add up nicely, how that’s achieved in regional print operations is an entirely different question. “When private equity is involved, obviously one route to profit is to cut costs and jobs, so the early conversation would be whether the group’s plan is to grow profitability and revenues or to cut costs.
“If the plan is to build an engaged audience, that would mean continuing to invest, which would probably be quite a good outcome for staff. Catalano has a background in journalism, he understands audiences and investing in the product. Ultimately it’s better to be owned by someone who actually wants to own you”.
Burrowes doesn’t think that anybody has really worked out how to do the kind of strong grassroots journalism that he believes is a service to democracy and the community. He says that represents a massive cultural gap in the Australian media market.
“The Canberra Times still has enormous power as a recognisable masthead even while it’s in decline. There’s a level of familiarity and support. But if you were launching a media company, why would you want to start with a print product? This deal is a bargain because print is a deeply unfashionable asset. It will take a few more years to know if it’s really a good deal”.
Local media insiders believe Catalano is likely to make substantial changes to the ACM structure and The Canberra Times. The digital space will be critical as the new owners examine whether to retain the print edition or take the masthead digital only, at least on weekdays.
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