AFR to blame for its own demise in the West

Neale Prior
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The Sydney-centric team at The Australian Financial Review want to blame everyone but themselves for officially turning their back on Perth.
The Sydney-centric team at The Australian Financial Review want to blame everyone but themselves for officially turning their back on Perth. Credit: Supplied

The Sydney-centric team at The Australian Financial Review want to blame everyone but themselves for officially turning their back on Perth.

With the number of AFR print copies sold daily in WA is believed to have shrunk to a sickly small weekday circulation, an unviably low level, fewer than the Kalgoorlie Miner and the South Western Times, the Nine-owned masthead has decided to stop selling the newspaper in the State.

It is the culmination of four decades of the boutique business publication’s retreat from WA, admitting it now just has two reporters covering the nation’s economic powerhouse.

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The Sydney bosses, who have long treated Perth as a foreign bureau, used the front-page of its newspaper edition on Thursday to reveal their plans to finally give up on their uneconomically tiny number of print readers.

The AFR reported its owners Nine Entertainment had been “forced” to kill its print editions in WA because the Kerry Stokes-chaired Seven West Media “demanded a new contract that doubled the cost of printing”.

A WAN spokesperson said the printing cost increase was a simple commercial decision during a period of high demand for our print operations.

“We made the AFR an offer that still would have allowed for hugely successful margins on a newspaper they sell to West Australians for $5 an edition,” the spokesperson said.

The front-page of its newspaper edition on Thursday.
The front-page of its newspaper edition on Thursday. Credit: supplied

The newspaper bizarrely tried to paint the entire turn of events as some kind of abuse of power by Mr Stokes and SWM, which owns WA Newspapers and ultimately the State’s only operating printing plant in Osborne Park.

But the origin of the AFR’s decision lies in low-level commercial reality, the withering of the once mighty Fairfax Media and the abandonment of regional publishing assets after Nine took over the newspaper group in 2018.

As part of its many purges, Nine offloaded its Mandurah plant used to print the AFR and regional publications to property publisher Antony Catalano.

That plant was sold again to IVE Group, but was mothballed in May last year as former Fairfax regional newspapers were shut down.

SWM’s contract printing offshoot Colourpress came to the AFR’s rescue, agreeing to print the orphaned AFR for WA under a contract that could be terminated by either side with 28 day’s notice.

Nine Entertainment’s low-volume paper competed for space with SWM-owned newspapers, including regional publications that have survived and thrived while Nine-Fairfax abandoned WA.

Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Financial Review Michael Stutchbury.
Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Financial Review Michael Stutchbury. Credit: DH/AAPIMAGE

SWM WA chief executive Maryna Fewster said the AFR made up less than one per cent of the external newspapers printed by SWM WA.

This includes News Corp’s The Australian and The Weekend Australian, which are printed six days a week pursuant to a long-term contract agreed between the two big newspaper rivals.

Grappling with a short-term and very low-value contract, SWM WA chief financial officer Shane O’Connor had the “temerity” on April 23 to send an email demanding that Nine double the price it pays for the printing of its modest pile of AFRs.

The AFR claimed in its Thursday report that no explanation was “forthcoming despite requests for information”.

It did not explain what information one big publisher would need to give another, but SWM sources say the AFR team did not make any serious attempt to negotiate a new price for its modest pile.

Despite this supposedly being such an important issue, not a peep was heard from Nine Entertainment chief executive Mike Sneesby.

This is not the first time Nine has threatened to abandon an Australian State while whingeing about outsourced printing costs for former Fairfax mastheads.

It decided to stop selling the AFR and the Melbourne Age to footy-mad Tasmanians in October 2022 after bleating about how much it was costing to print these newspapers at the cast-off Fairfax plant near Launceston.

Nine backed down after copping an outcry from local newsagents and reportedly striking a higher-priced deal with ACM.

If Nine Entertainment wanted to show its commitment to the WA market, it could be talking to IVE about reviving the Mandurah printing press.

That would show more backbone than attempting to paint SWM as the villain in a situation entirely of Nine’s own making.

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