ACM executive chairman calls for changes to save our local voices

WIN Network was forced to axe a number of its TV news bulletins last year, denying key regional communities a local voice.
WIN Network was forced to axe a number of its TV news bulletins last year, denying key regional communities a local voice.

LIKE many companies hit hard by the economic impact of the coronavirus, ACM is grateful for the federal government's JobKeeper program, which has helped our employees and our business keep regional communities informed and connected through the pandemic.

We're grateful also for the offer of a Public Interest News Gathering grant. The government responded to the COVID-19 emergency by adding $10million to $40million already earmarked to support regional media, and that was a welcome gesture.

But neither program is a long-term solution for the most serious challenge confronting the local media serving Australians living beyond the big capital cities.

What long-standing regional media businesses like ACM need is the ability to structure ourselves more efficiently and effectively; to be able to make commercially sensible changes to our corporate structures that allow us to stay profitable, sustainable and self-sufficient.

But the rules that currently govern regional media in Australia prevent this.

Because those rules are broken.

That's why ACM, publisher of this newspaper, has joined Prime Media, WIN Network and Southern Cross Austereo to highlight the urgent need for legislative reform. The campaign is called "Save Our Voices" because that is what's at stake - the loud and proud voices of the nine million Australians who don't live in metropolitan cities like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

At issue are our antiquated media ownership laws. They were drafted before the internet existed, back when printed newspapers and commercial TV channels and radio stations dominated the media landscape.

Today, with digital technology allowing news and entertainment content from anywhere to be accessed everywhere via a smartphone or smart TV, these outdated regulations are threatening the future of Australia's unique regional media voices.

ACM has transformed the way its journalists bring audiences the news and is evolving as a digitally-led media business, executive chairman Antony Catalano says.

For those local outlets that have been part of the fabric of country and coastal communities for decades - and in the case of a number of ACM's trusted newspaper mastheads more than 150 years - the digital revolution has transformed the way we bring you the news. It has also fundamentally changed the competitive environment we face.

Those who drafted our present media laws would have never in their wildest imagination dreamed of how many ways there are today to reach audiences: global streaming services like Netflix and Disney+; metro TV networks with their own internet streaming channels; national and international news websites; plus podcasts and social media platforms. And yet the current laws say that newspapers, TV and radio are the only forms of media that must be regulated in regional areas. It's just illogical.

Frustratingly, the federal government changed some of the rules a few years ago to allow big metropolitan media corporations, such as Nine Entertainment and Seven West Media, to evolve and thrive in the digital era.

Back then the government acknowledged that the decades-old legislation was preventing traditional media outlets from structuring their businesses efficiently or achieving the scale necessary to adapt and compete more effectively with newer unregulated services such as YouTube and Facebook.

But regional Australia was left behind in the changes. Existing media businesses delivering local news and information to 38 per cent of the country's population - employers of thousands of people in regional towns - were instead left to wither, hampered by obsolete regulation such as the "voices test".

It stipulates that a regional market must have at least four independent media "voices". But it applies only to traditional formats - radio, newspapers and free-to-air TV - even as the number and diversity of media "voices" grows as the government's own NBN delivers regional audiences more digital news and entertainment choices.

WIN Network was forced to axe a number of its TV news bulletins last year, denying key regional communities a local voice.

That the current legislation fails to recognise the existence of Netflix or even Facebook is just absurd. Facebook has arguably Australia's largest voice with 15 million users a day. Meanwhile, a regional broadcaster like WIN is forced to axe local news bulletins, denying key towns a local voice, because federal regulations prevent it from forming alliances or merging.

Another outdated rule is the "one-to-a-market" rule. It says you can't own more than one TV station. It suggests that broadcast TV is still the pre-eminent voice in media when in fact digital platforms now command far bigger audiences and thus have the largest share of voice. For all of ACM's extraordinary print reach of more than 4.4million people, our digital audience is nearly twice that - and yet digital is not counted as a "voice" in our markets.

At ACM we are developing new ways to protect and grow our business and continue investing in our journalism. Thanks to the loyalty of tens of thousands of readers, we've developed a digital subscription income for more than 40 of our newspaper titles. Only recently we announced a joint-venture with which will further broaden our revenue base beyond print publishing and enable us to evolve as a digitally led media business.

And yet when it comes to combining ACM's resources with, say, a regional TV network to build a stronger, more sustainable business - one that's better equipped to compete with the big digital players from the metro markets or overseas now vying for regional audiences - we are constrained.

The government's previous changes to media ownership rules made it OK, for example, for Nine to merge with Fairfax Media and take control of the most significant voice in Australian radio, the most significant voice in TV and three of the most influential print and digital brands in the country in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review. Nine is allowed to deliver its content to all of metropolitan Australia and also reach all of regional Australia digitally - and yet regional media businesses are not allowed to do the same to remain viable.

Despite the explosion of digital media news and entertainment services, current federal regulations say that traditional newspapers, TV and radio are the only forms of media that must be regulated in regional areas.

If that construct of ownership is OK in metropolitan Australia why is it not OK in regional Australia? It makes no sense. Is the government really saying it's OK for the number of voices in a regional market to be reduced through market failure, as we saw last year when a number of local news bulletins disappeared from regional TV screens? But a commercial solution that might help make those regional news services sustainable is not allowed?

Why is it in Bendigo, for example, that only the existing newspaper, radio and TV outlets are counted as "voices" when a metro-based newspaper like The Age distributes in the area in print and digital, the ABC has TV, radio and digital services in the area, The Guardian and The New York Times can have digital distribution in Bendigo and so can a local news website trying to get subscribers for the Herald Sun. How are they not considered voices in that market?

Here's how silly the current rules are: hypothetically, if ACM were to buy or merge with a regional TV network it would, according to the regulations, reduce the so-called voices in a market from four to three. In order for us to comply with those rules we'd have to turn our six-day-a-week newspaper in that market into, say, a three-day-a-week title so it's no longer considered a daily newspaper and therefore it wouldn't count as a voice.

How does that serve the interests of that city and that audience? Isn't that regional centre better off with its six-day-a-week local newspaper and its TV news?

The current rules simply do not make sense when anyone can go into a regional area, set up 10 websites and totally control that local digital audience but they would not count as a "voice" in that media market.

Regional Australia deserves better. It deserves an independent, vibrant, sustainable local media. If the government is serious about the survival of regional media it needs to act now before it is too late.

  • Antony Catalano is co-owner and executive chairman of ACM, the publisher of this newspaper, and a major shareholder in Prime Media Group.