In a sign of the deeply troubling times for legacy media companies, Australian Community Media, which now owns The Canberra Times, has announced today that they’ll cease local printing operations for at least the next two months.
The print editions of ACM’s 14 daily newspapers, including The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald and The Border Mail, are not affected by the latest announcement and will continue to be available, along with weekly agricultural publications including The Land in NSW, Farm Weekly in Western Australia and Queensland Country Life.
However, The Canberra Times will no longer be printed on the Fyshwick presses. Employees associated with printing in Canberra, Murray Bridge, Wodonga and Tamworth have also been stood down until the end of June.
Landlords at more than 30 small offices around the country have also been notified in recent days that ACM intends to exit lease arrangements to reduce their rental costs across the business.
The news comes after weeks of reports that Canberra Times staff have been urged to take their holiday leave where possible.
The Canberra Times was part of a complex deal that offloaded a large number of regional titles, sites and printing equipment in April last year when the ACM group was purchased by former Domain real estate boss Antony Catalano and Thorney Investments.
The consortium paid $115 million for the group, which had been described by Nine boss Hugh Marks, the former owner of the assets, as “non-core businesses”. Nine said it disposed of the company in order to focus on “high growth digital assets”.
The deal included content sharing arrangements for a limited period of time with former stablemates The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review, although that arrangement was described at the time as a “short transitional period”.
Shortly afterwards, the masthead installed a digital paywall, a move greeted with scepticism in the ACT at the time given the newspaper’s long history of declining circulation. The site continues to allow access to a limited amount of emergency coverage.
Last week, Crikey journalist Bernard Keane wrote that the COVID-19 crisis comes on top of the drought and bushfire catastrophes and associated revenue downturns for ACM, and likely means that hopes to turn the company into a property play are “dead in the water”.
Chairman Antony Catalano told staff via email that the company had been “working tirelessly to try to maintain a full level of services and meet the needs of our team members, customers and the community”, but that revenue had been affected substantially.
“For reasons beyond our control, we cannot sustain the same level of useful work or costs moving forward,” Mr Catalano said.
Media commentator Tim Burrowes from media analysts Mumbrella told Region Media at the time of the takeover that while private equity with the right partner might find The Canberra Times an attractive proposition, making the masthead profitable was a 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”, he said.
“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”.