The death rattle of Aussie print news?

Australia’s dwindling print news landscape is under threat with the cost of newsprint set to soar up to 45 per this year. Paper shortages, rising energy costs and falling newsprint sales have combined over the past decade to place Australia’s small newspaper milling operations in jeopardy. One of the world’s largest paper suppliers, Swedish company Norske-Skog, late last year told Australian media companies it would raise the cost of newsprint by 30 per cent and glossy paper for inserts and magazines by between 35 and 45 per cent. Sydney Morning Herald this morning reported its owner Nine Entertainment Co as well as NewsCorp were both attempting to renegotiate prices with Norske-Skog, but said the company’s lone remaining paper mill in Boyer, Tasmania would likely close if they were successful, creating further problems.

Norske, itself owned by European investment fund Oceanwood Capital Management Ltd, has posted a loss on its Australian operations for the past ten years. The company closed its only New Zealand plant in Kawerau on the north island in June 2021, while its second Australian plant in Albury was sold to Visy in 2019 who repurposed it as a recycling centre. Norske has long blamed spiking energy prices and competition with subsidised paper mills in China as major threats to its operations in the Pacific.

Australian Community Media, owner of Australia’s largest raft of regional titles, in February told a federal parliamentary inquiry the rise in paper prices was the biggest threat to regional news since World War II. ACM managing director Tony Kendall said the company was “confronting extra costs for paper alone that are equivalent to the salaries of 50 journalists”. Mr Kendall said the cost increases would see the closure of less profitable titles and “put even our biggest publications under significant cost pressure”. Sydney Morning Herald followed this morning saying such closures would uniquely impact News Corp as it runs Australia’s print centres. News Corp representatives and even Nine Entertainment’s managing director – publishing, James Chessell, declined to comment.

Australian Community Media has steadily reduced its print output to 14 daily titles, including political bellwether The Canberra Times, and a dwindling array of weekly and monthly agricultural publications. In its parliamentary inquiry submission, the company said it had scuppered 50 printed mastheads and switched 20 titles to weekly editions during the COVID pandemic, citing a 45 per cent revenue loss for regional print titles over the last five years. While the company still lays claim to 160 regional titles, many exist only in digital form with their content reduced to syndications of the company’s daily titles and newswire service the Australian Associated Press. Some websites were consolidated during the COVID-19 pandemic as their advertising revenue collapsed.

Content deals with Google and Facebook underpinned by the News Media Bargaining Code amount to less than five per cent of ACM’s total annual revenue, “not enough to save regional publications that are already at the margin of profitability”.

Over 227 print or digital news mastheads have either closed or reduced services since the start of 2019, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative’s Australian Newsroom Mapping Project.