Billionaire investor predicts newsroom closures in regional Australia
Billionaire investor Alex Waislitz has warned of job losses and newsroom closures at regional newspaper business Australian Community Media if the government doesn’t relax media ownership laws.
Mr Waislitz’s Thorney Investment group and former Domain boss Antony Catalano bought The Canberra Times publisher from Nine Entertainment Co for $115 million in July. Nine is the owner of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“A lot of people will lose their jobs, and a lot of facilities will be shut down,” Mr Waislitz said during a Thorney investor day in Melbourne on Wednesday. “Media companies will continue to struggle as they have in the last few years.”
ACM has already begun “aggressively paying down debt”, he said, by selling four of the company’s 25 acquired properties and taking the knife to the sales executive teams and managing editor ranks. Media industry sources have regularly said there is little doubt the publisher, which owns about 170 country and regional titles, would be under pressure in a tight advertising market.
Mr Waistliz said red tape needed to be lifted to allow for a “historical change” in the way regional newsrooms work, emphasising the need for greater pooling of facilities and resources.
“The government should adapt the media laws to allow for that in order to give integrity, sustainability and viability for local, regional and rural media,” he said.
We will have communities living in the dark. The industry needs to consolidate.Antony Catalano
His business partner Antony Catalano argued it was “critically important” for the government to allow media mergers in regional areas, which were currently governed by rules that were “20 years behind technology”.
“Without it, we will have communities living in the dark,” he said. “The industry needs to consolidate.”
In September, Mr Catalano said the regional media industry was in the middle of a “crisis”, urging the government to get rid of regional television licence fees and allow more mergers.
Interests associated with Mr Catalano and Mr Waislitz have acquired a 12.9 per cent stake in Seven West Media’s regional affiliate Prime Media Group, which Seven is seeking to take over. Sources close to Mr Catalano previously said he wants to reshape the merger and potentially include ACM in the metropolitan broadcaster’s takeover of the rural network.
Mr Catalano has stated Seven’s recent offer of 0.4582 of its shares for each share in Prime was “unfair” and he wanted “a good deal for everyone”.
Mr Waislitz said ACM would be open to a takeover if it “made commercial sense”, but these comments came at odds with Mr Catalano who said he hadn’t discussed such a deal with his business partner and was “not interested in an offer”.
The pair said they had been “openly lobbying” the government for change, but Mr Waislitz said he had not personally attended the meetings.
“We’re only a new acquirer of our assets but people within our organisation, my partner Antony Catalano have been expressing their views in Canberra.”
But the billionaire investor said he was not confident in the pace of change in the industry.
“I think it’s urgent and needs to happen now,” he said.
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