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Queensland regionals going strong, one year on

Talk of mergers is high on the agenda in light of recent media reforms. With all the chatter, it is easy to forget that it is close to one year since the biggest Australian media merger in 32 years was approved, allowing APN’s regional stable to be purchased by News Corp Australia in a deal worth $36.6million.

Now, News’ executive general manager of Queensland regionals & the Northern Territory Simon Irwin is charged with building the News Regional Media (NRM) business.

NRM covers most of the north-east of the Australia with more than 70 titles – 60 community mastheads and 12 daily newspapers – including The Sunshine Coast Daily, The Gympie Times, Toowoomba’s The Chronicle, The Daily Examiner in Grafton, Cairns Post and The Townsville Bulletin, reaching 1.6 million across print and digital.

One year on, Mr Irwin says that the business has unified well in a short time, with staff adopting the mindset of one larger regional business instead of two individual units.

“You don’t really compartmentalise it as this many from here and that many from there. It is a message we still have to sell throughout the entire market and, to a certain extent, throughout the broader company.

“But really, when you think about it, we only really physically moved into Brisbane in March-April so it really has been only six months that everyone has got to know each other, but I think that is really on track and bodes really well for the future of regional newspapers,” Mr Irwin said.

News Corp Australia’s Simon Irwin, executive general manager of Queensland regionals & the Northern Territory

Reaching this milestone was a long process. Last February, publisher APN News & Media announced it would sell off its regional newspapers in Queensland following $10.2 million in losses in 2015, a disappointing turnaround from an $11.5 million profit the previous year. The loss was largely attributed to the Australian Regional Media assets which recorded $50.8 million in non-cash write-downs in the 2015 calendar year.

Enter News Corp Australia. The publisher shocked analysts in June last year, scooping up the titles for $36.6 million. Many estimated the worth of ARM at $40-$60 million and were surprised News made the purchase at such a low price.

The final deal approval came in December, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission giving the green light to the consolidation.

APN News & Media has since rebranded, sans newspapers. In May, the company began trading as Here, There & Everywhere (HT&E) to better reflect its outdoor and radio assets.

News has taken the opposite route, reaffirming its commitment to the print medium.

At the time of the acquisition, News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller and former APN CEO said: “The newspapers in the group are some of the strongest regional titles in Australia representing centres like Rockhampton, Mackay, Toowoomba and the Sunshine Coast, and we believe their community-based values are a good fit with News Corp. A commitment to vibrant newspaper operations that makes strategic sense.”

This mentality has carried the merger, with former ARM executive Mr Irwin joining News to handle the mastheads under Jason Scott, managing director of Queensland, Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea.

“I think this has been one of those triple bottom line deals really,” said Mr Irwin.

“It has been great for readers because they get access to more of the great stable that is News Corp. Advertisers now from Chinchilla can put an ad in The Australian.

“For our staff it means if you’re a journo starting in Bilionera or in Atherton you can end up in New York or you could end up in Sydney or Melbourne – the world is your oyster really. So I think that people are starting to really understand that their opportunities are greatly expanded.”

Reaching the masses

The merger effectively gave News Corp control of the whole of regional Queensland, bar a smattering of Fairfax agricultural and community titles. Now the NRM business is connecting advertisers to an audience of 3.2 million – 87 per cent of the state – allowing them to reach not only local or regional audiences, but also the larger state and national market share.

This has not come without its challenges.

NRM is still relying on a separate booking system to the rest of the business, making it difficult for sales teams to deliver at scale. Different client and finance systems are slowly coming together, with Mr Irwin conceding it is just “the stuff that takes time”.

However, the difficulty does not limit the opportunity of advertisers, who, with “a phone call” can reach most of Queensland, opening clients to a “whole world of possibility”.

Mr Irwin said: “As News Corp we are looking to have an absolute focus on our audience and on our advertisers.

“[However], if you are in the sales department here [in Sydney] you have to get your head around another 100 publications, another 40 websites. It’s not the easiest of things just to go out and say “righto, whack, here we are”. I think it’s getting people everywhere to understand the scale of the regional group which is collectively one of the bigger bits around the place.”

While technology has been a headache for sales teams, the number of different assets within the company’s portfolio has provided advertisers with new possibilities and opportunities.

News has several advertising units under its umbrella including Unruly, Storyful, and NewsXtend, providing more opportunity for creative which can be delivered differently cross-platform.

“We are still learning, for the people who came across from ARM like I did, about every day at News, the organisation is so large and has so many parts,” Mr Irwin said.

“The move into marketing services through our NewsXtend program and things like that is fantastic – that is a huge change for regional publishers. One of the things we are most excited about is the fact that now an advertiser can come to us for their Facebook page, their online advertising, retargeting for video, Google AdWords … for all that stuff!

“That is a monster change but it has been going for so long now that it feels like business as normal.”

Trusted community content is still paramount

Benefits have not only been restricted to advertisers, with readers also reaping the rewards of the merger.

Mr Irwin says the community embraced the broader ranging content and depth of coverage now available to the regional mastheads, which includes access to The Courier Mail’s columnists and state-based reporting.

Digitally, readers have easy access to News’ extensive lifestyle publications within NewsLifeMedia – all this content is just “part of the overall package”.

Each masthead is ingrained within its community, with both the advertising and editorial crucial to ongoing longevity.

The merger has not seen this ethos diminish. Mr Irwin said not to expect many big changes in the future, not because the NRM team is not working hard behind the scenes, but rather there is not much to be done in terms of fixing the model.

Mr Irwin said: “If you are asking me will they look fundamentally different in six months – probably not because the model is not broken.

“The one thing that traditional media brings is trust. There is no shortage of people who will tell you what they can do for you online. The difference is if you have been in the community for 150 years and you say you can do it, and it is proven you can do it, people will believe it – and I think it is that local connection.”

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