Will Tasmanian Country dodge News Corp’s axe?

As last edition looms, Font PR pitches to buy masthead
 June 24, 2020
Published:  June 24, 2020
Dairy farm in north-western Tasmania. Image: Mark Horstman.

Public relations and lobbying firm Font PR has expressed interest in buying rural newspaper Tasmanian Country despite News Corporation Australia announcing it would cease publication after its final edition later this week.

Two sources told Tasmanian Inquirer that Font PR, a Liberal-aligned firm that has already bought several regional newspapers, has made a play for the 40-year-old title.

At the time the closure was first announced, Font PR expressed interest in buying the newspaper but was rebuffed. “Unfortunately we understand that the newspaper is not for sale,” Font PR wrote in a May 29 Facebook post.

However, the initial decision may now be under review.

“There are apparently one or more interested parties interested in buying Tasmanian Country,” said Mark Thomas, the Tasmanian President of the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA), the union representing media workers.

“If a deal can be struck with News Corporation Australia, that would be great for Tasmanian journalism and the overall media landscape in this State.”

Asked to confirm whether it had received an offer from Font PR to buy the masthead, News Corporation Australia’s head of external communications, Matthew Charles, said the company would decline to comment “given it is speculation.”

Tasmanian Inquirer tried to contact Becher Townshend, the managing director of Font PR, on several occasions but received no response.

On May 27 News Corporation Australia announced that 22 newspapers and specialist titles including Tasmanian Country would cease publication as part of a sweeping rationalisation of its national newspaper portfolio.

Peter Skillern, chief executive of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA), said the announcement of Tasmanian Country’s closure “caught us by surprise”.

“It is a blow for the Tasmanian farming community,” he said. “It is important to have local stories of interest to Tasmanian farmers. There are issues in the wake of COVID-19 affecting the agricultural sector which will be important for the broader Tasmanian economy.”

News Corporation’s advertising blues

News Corporation Australia blamed the closure of “unsustainable publications” primarily on the shift to online readership and declining advertising revenue.

An internal document leaked to Crikey in 2013 revealed that for the year to the end of June 2013 Tasmanian Country was in a strong financial position.

According to the document, the newspaper generated a profit of $469,000 from an income of $1.6 million. While highly profitable at that time, there were warning signs: in the 2013 financial year advertising revenue fell by over 11 per cent.

The business model of Tasmanian Country is simple: distribute a weekly newspaper free to rural properties and farming households across the state with a small number sold for a nominal $1 cover price at selected newsagents. Launched in 1980, it has relied almost entirely on advertising for income.

“From the outside looking in, advertising in Tasmanian Country has been looking pretty strong,” said Peter Skillern, the CEO of the TFGA. 

It was a formula that worked well. According to a January 2019 News Corporation Australia media kit promoting its rural mastheads, Tasmanian Country had a readership of 24,000 a week. However, its online presence was modest, with just 4800 page views a month.

“It was and could be a successful weekly or monthly newspaper, either in print or digital form, reaching the Tasmanian agricultural community which plays such an important part in the Tasmanian economy,” Thomas said.

The TFGA was also surprised to see the decision based on a decline in advertising revenue. “From the outside looking in, advertising in Tasmanian Country has been looking pretty strong. I suspect it is a decision where it got caught up in a broader restructure,” Skillern said.

If Font PR is successful in buying the masthead, it will add to its growing portfolio of local newspapers: the Derwent Valley Gazette, Tasman Gazette, Sorrel Times and the East Coast View. It also produces the Tasmanian Business Reporter on behalf of Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Beyond its newspaper interests, Font PR boasts a roster of 31 lobbying clients and does public relations work for a range of government agencies, private companies and lobby groups. Font PR is also an adviser to both the Gutwein government and the Liberal Party of Tasmania.

If Tasmanian Country closes, there is uncertainty what, if anything, will fill the gap.

“The death of any masthead leaves a gaping hole in its community – and Tasmanian Country covers the entire state,” Thomas said.

If News Corporation Australia reverses its decision to close Tasmanian Country, it also raises the question of how many of the other publications slated for closure could have survived if they were offered for sale.

Adam Portelli, the MEAA’s regional director for Victoria and Tasmania, has argued the crisis in regional journalism meant there was an urgent need for the federal government  to “step up and follow through with sustainable funding for regional journalism”, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recommended [Pdf] in July 2019.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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