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Panpa Bulletin : August 2006
august 2006 PANPA bULLETIN | 17 PUbLISHING MATTERS Peter ISaaCSon It’s boom or bust for media owners with the government’s plan to revise and revamp its policies on the industry writes Peter Isaacson Re-writing the business end of making news Much of what follows is in the past because at the time of writing, Monday, July 17, 2006, I have had more than a week of reading, seeing and hearing about the stand-off between John Howard and Peter Costello as to whom, in their respective opinions, should be Prime Minister. So it was quite a change to be assailed by news of far greater immediate importance to readers of the PANPA Bulletin - the changes to the laws governing media ownership. The changes will not affect me personally (except so far as the value of my investments in media companies is concerned), but they will have an effect on all those em- ployed by Australian broadcasters, telecasters, publishers, printers and the multitude of associated industries. Newspapers, the Australian Financial Review in particular, used tonnes of newsprint, ex- plaining the legislation being put to Parliament, speculating on possible ownership changes and attempting to predict future links between electronic and print media companies. It is possible that second string but highly profitable newspaper companies with radio add-ons such as Rural Press and APN News and Media will either grasp opportunities to expand their mini-empires, become acquisi- tion targets for each other or be gobbled up by one of a range of diverse local or overseas buyers. Fairfax CEO, David Kirk, has al- ready suggested that his company may buy additional regional titles to reduce its reliance on advertis- ing in metropolitan areas despite covetously eyeing West Australian Newspapers, as have Rural and APN. WAN may be too big for either of them but not for News for whom the acquisition of the West Australian would consolidate ownership of a daily newspaper in every Australian State capital. After the changes are made I hope there will still remain profit- able, independently owned, rural and suburban community news- papers and the growing number of electronic news links. Leader in the latter field,Crikey.com edi- torialised that "plans to transform the media landscape should be manna from heaven for a small independent media outfit like ours . . . as one of the few alterna- tive media voices in Australia we should be the chief beneficiary!" I know from personal experi- ence that major newspaper pro- prietors can be both benevolent to, and destructive of, smaller, independent competitors. Former publishers of Melbourne commu- nity newspapers will remember with gratitude the generosity of Sir John Williams managing direc- tor of Herald and Weekly Times Limited, who, in the 1960s and 70s, made loans on very generous terms and took minority interests in several struggling publishing companies. His ulterior motive was to prevent The Age getting control of the suburban market, nevertheless his investments left majority ownership of the papers with the original proprietors. Conversely, when their interests are threatened, media moguls give no quarter as I found in my struggles with Sunday newspapers in Darwin and Melbourne. Dr. Rod Kirkpatrick, of the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Queensland recently sent me extracts from the PANPA Bulletin December 1994 which described the fight I had competing my Sunday Ter- ritorial with the News Limited Sunday Territorial, both published in Darwin, and yes, both with the same name. My Sunday Territorial was published first and I fought in the Federal Court to maintain sole use of the name which News also gave their paper. Two trials ended up with decisions that both papers could continue to publish with the same masthead, a deci- sion which may have been right in law, but certainly unreasonable in practice. My Sunday Observer met the same fate. It was profit- able when it was competing only against the Sunday Press, jointly published by Fairfax and News, but when Murdoch broke the nexus and decided to publish two Sundays, the Sunday Sun and the Sunday Herald and Fairfax the Sunday Age, I was not prepared to risk my all against them and so closed the Sunday Observer. News closed one of their papers when they accomplished their purpose of confining the market to two. Another change that will seri- ously affect the print media is the new rules, effective July 1, for the auditing of sales of publications of more than 25,000 paid sales. This too brings back memories, memories of how hard publish- ers of free distribution com- munity newspapers and other publications had to fight to have circulations audited and thus be accepted as worthwhile advertis- ing media. Because the Audit Bureau of Circulations refused to audit free publications, the Mott family-owned Leader group with Charles Hollway of Progress Press (now both owned by News Lim- ited), enlisted the support of other Melbourne publishers and set up SNAB - the Suburban Newspapers AuditBureau - to audit community newspapers. This eventually led to the establishment of the CAB - the Circulations Audit Board - expressly to audit publications such as community newspapers, controlled circulation business journals and tourist guides. The new ABC auditing rules will stop the padding of paid circulation figures by showing separately different types of sales including (discounted) copies sold to hotels and airlines, those sold to schools and universities, event and multi- ple-publication sales Recent audit figures, the lat- est before the new rules apply, indicate that the sales of the broadsheets, both Monday to Friday and Saturday only, have started to increase. According to Alan Kohler, "this has pronounced implications for long-held as- sumptions about what the digital age means for media and journal- ism . . . there seems little reason to be pessimistic about traditional quality journalism." In Melbourne, Fairfax have taken Kohler's words at face value and increased the price of The Age by 20 cents to $1.40 Monday - Fri- day. If the 16.66 per cent increase does not affect circulation, the future of quality newspapers as the major harbinger of news may be assured. Disclosure: The writer holds shares in all the companies mentioned. Peter Isaacson is a former publisher and life member of PanPa