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Future of SA country papers unclear after takeover deal

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The future of a stable of newspapers across regional South Australia is uncertain, after a Sydney buyer scooped them up in a national deal worth $115m.

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A company controlled by former Fairfax executive Antony Catalano and ASX-listed Thorney Investment Group announced today it had bought the newspapers from Nine, in a deal which saw it take ownership of around 170 titles under the Australian Community Media umbrella.

ACM owns a host of South Australian mastheads, including the Victor Harbor Times, Northern Argus, Flinders News, West Coast Sentinel, Naracoorte Herald, Border Chronicle and Kingscote-based The Islander.

Others include Barossa & Light Herald, Coastal Leader, Eyre Peninsula Tribune, On the Coast, Port Lincoln Times, The Murray Valley Standard, The Recorder, The Transcontinental and Whyalla News.

ACM also publishes The Stock Journal, based in South Australia.

By contrast, SA has 11 independent or family-owned regional titles, according to the Country Press Association.

Nine, which will retain former Fairfax metropolitan titles the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review, said today it will receive $115 million in cash plus up to $10 million of advertising in ACM titles over three years.

Fairfax previously owned the regional mastheads, which Nine inherited under its $3b merger with Fairfax in November.

New owner Catalano – a former Domain chief executive – tried unsuccesfully to derail the merger.

After the deal was done, Nine said it had little interest in regional newspapers and offered them for sale, with bids closing last week.

Fairfax SA titles were being squeezed even before the merger, as the company struggled to survive in a turbulent market heavily disrupted by digital media and advertising.

In 2015, the company cut dozens of positions from SA country papers, closing the Roxby Downs Sun and reducing the number of editions elsewhere.

Country Press Association president Darren Robinson said independent regional mastheads were generally doing well, while those owned by Fairfax/Nine had been under pressure for years.

“The papers used to have their own graphic design departments, that’s all gone,” he said.

“Journalists have been cut, sales teams have been cut, and as a result there’s less service offered to local businesses, page counts are declining, circulation is shrinking.”

Robinson, whose family owns the The Leader, said that it was important regional newspapers continued to exist and thrive and represent their communities, no matter who owned them.

He hoped the latest takeover would be a positive move which – rather than see papers close – would inject new funding and resources to boost regional journalism and benefit country readers.

“Those titles are just wanting investment and resources … there’s no reason those papers can’t be turned around, because they’ve been let go for so long now.

“And it’s a credit to those current staff working there… they’ve been so hard-pressed.”

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