Today saw the latest morph of newspaper publishers Australian Community Media (Publishers of the Bay Post, Narooma News, Moruya Examiner, Bega District News, Eden Magnet, Merimbula News Weekly, and Canberra Times) with the announcement that you can subscribe to one and get the others free. Making the announcement the Bay Post said: Bay Post has switched on a new-look website and expanded its subscription offering for online readers with unlimited access to the award-winning journalism of the Far South Coast's No. 1 news source, The Canberra Times. The Bay Post's new subscription offering unlocks all of the breaking Far South Coast news, sport, opinion, food, culture and lifestyle content produced by The Canberra Times and publisher ACM's other mastheads in the region, such as the Bega District News as well as the latest in news, sport, travel and more from around Australia and the world. That might sound pretty good. I have long read the Bay Post, Moruya Examiner and the Narooma News to see what was happening in my community. In days of old each masthead stood individually, celebrating their own respective communities. Narooma wasn't all that interested in Moruya news and certainly wasn't interested in Batemans Bay news. The same applied for each of the northern towns in news that was Narooma centric. The newspapers prospered and represented their towns with a pride and a passion. The editors were well known, mostly respected and the pages they presented described the warp and weft of their respective communities. But that was then. Since the takeover of Fairfax by Australian Community Media we have witnessed a rapid decline in the news service that was once enjoyed. Newspapers that were once 40 or more pages have dwindled to mere slips that carry around 40% advertising, most of which is corporate rather than local. Adding to the decimation we have witnessed the loss, without explanation, of the Moruya Examiner (that now exists only in Twitter) and the paring back of the twice weekly Bay Post to just once a week. In Narooma the loss of an editor has resulted in the Narooma News content being little more than a clone of its Northern masthead. A visit to the Narooma News website today offers one local story of interest to those in Narooma that is cloned from the Bega District News. If you look across the South East ACM mastheads it is immediately evident that most of the news they present is little more than a clone of a master file. ACM received $10.3 million from the Federal Government when they cried poor that new was going to the wall and the consequences would be the loss of regional news delivery. Australian Community Media was awarded more than $10m in Covid grants while it scaled back its newspapers. The Guardian reported that Australian Community Media company, which bought Rural Press group in 2018, owned 138 regional newspapers before the Covid-19 induced downturn.
"By April 2020, ACM had announced the suspension of many of its regional mastheads. Its 14 daily papers continued, but many country towns were left without a local newspaper.
"The drastic measures by ACM and other regional media companies prompted the federal government to respond with $50m under the Public Interest News Gathering (Ping) grant scheme.
"Announcing the fund on 29 June 2020, the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the grants were to help regional publishers sustain public interest journalism in the face of sharp falls in advertising revenue due to the pandemic.
“In the case of newspaper publishers the funding is conditional on titles which have been suspended recommencing printing, recommencing publications, and that will be a condition of the grant agreements which must be entered into before funding can flow,” Fletcher said.
“In the case of newspaper publishers, that funding is for print newspapers. And so where printing of newspaper editions has been suspended, that will need to recommence before funding can flow.” But the Moruya Examiner never returned and the Bay Post went to once a week with the Bay Post and Narooma News served by one acting editor delivering predominantly cloned news across bot mastheads in 24 page publications that carried on average 40% advertising space. In February 2022 Rural Press Pty Ltd (trading as Australian Community Media) made a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into regional newspapers saying (in part): Regional newspapers are facing an existential crisis. A combination of factors including the COVID pandemic, a shift of readers and advertising revenue to digital platforms and rising costs of production and distribution have led to closures, suspensions and frequency changes across the sector. To demonstrate the gravity of the situation, we would ask the committee to consider this:
Without the federal government's timely support through JobKeeper and the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) fund, ACM would have stopped trading. During the past two years ACM has closed five printing presses and sold two others. This was not done lightly, but these capital-intensive manufacturing operations were simply unaffordable. Printing of papers at these press sites has been outsourced to other providers. In many cases these presses were printing other organisations' products at a loss to ACM. This was not sustainable. Rationalising how we produce and distribute our newspapers has helped protect the viability of ACM's core business: regional journalism. We estimate that of our portfolio of titles, 20-30 per cent are under threat without urgent support. Already a large proportion of our portfolio is operating unprofitably and is only sustained by the larger group. We see no change in this trajectory in the short- or medium-term and, indeed, it has been accelerated by COVID. Without some form of at least short-term support, our only option to maintain the viability of many of our mastheads will be to further cut costs. This means fewer pages, less frequency of publication, fewer journalists and other staff, less journalism and, ultimately, fewer newspapers. Printing and production, including newsprint, is the biggest single input to our business after labour.
A massive increase in newsprint prices will affect publishers globally this year. It is perhaps the single biggest threat to the viability of our publishing business, after COVID and its economic effects.
ACM will be heavily affected by this rise because of the number of publications we produce and the high volume of newsprint we require.
Our supplier, Norske Skog, has advised that the price rise from July 2022 will be more than 30 per cent. This equates to millions of dollars of extra expense a year. When combined with price rises for specialty paper used for our magazines we are confronting extra costs for paper alone that are equivalent to the salaries of 50 journalists.
The newsprint increases are being imposed by Norske Skog to cover what it says are increased electricity prices and shipping costs. Paper for Australian publishers comes from the single remaining newsprint production plant in Australia and New Zealand.
These increases will likely cause the closure of titles that are teetering on the edge of profitability and will put even our biggest publications under significant cost pressure.
We will have no choice but to increase the cover prices for all our newspapers while at the same time reducing paging. This in turn will reduce circulation and put further pressure on our ability to sell advertising.
This is a situation that requires urgent government attention and assistance.
Given the submission and the cry for further government help it is clear that ACM is in trouble. The rising price of paper by 30%, the lagging sales, the reduced production and the reduction in pages only add to the concerns that the content across the mastheads is becoming cloned where there is little if any difference in articles from one paper to the next.
Independent news outlets such as The Beagle are watching with interest as ACM tries to offer the incentive of access to the Canberra Times to any south coast ACM subscriber.
ACM has moved its portfolio interest to include real estate and and travel while attempting to break into the metropolitan market.
How long our local ACM mastheads can survive with lagging sales and rising costs is unknown. Maybe the dazzle of access to the Canberra Times might persuade a new subscriber.
It might pay to read between the lines when the Bay Post writes:
"Existing Bay Post digital subscribers will enjoy the extra reading at their current subscription price for up to 12 months."
And after 12 months?
Meet just some of the family of ACM clones