Unless a significant investor steps forward, the one-year old Metro News in Melbourne will probably be closed after a brutal campaign by Tony O’Reilly’s APN group. A reporter on the paper has issued this cry for help.

Yet even Melbourne, Australia’s most intelligent city, is unable to sustain quality independent print outlets. Nationally, The Republican and The Eye, both publications with great promise, went to the wall leaving diverse reporting and ownership all the poorer.

Locally, those with long memories may recall the legendary Valley Voice, which briefly but heroically took on the might of the Leader organisation in Melbourne’s outer north eastern suburbs in the 1970s, before being ground out of existence.

A couple of years back the Murdoch owned Leader organisation showed similar ruthlessness in stamping out a new competitor in the outer north east before it had published even one edition.

And now the cosy coterie of multinationals that owns suburban publishing in Melbourne may get to claim another dubious victory.

The inner city newspaper Metro News last week celebrated its first birthday by appointing an administrator in a last ditch bid to find an investor to bail it out of a cash-flow crisis largely caused by big boy bullying.

Metro News, for those not in its 114,000 city and inner north and north west catchment, is a full colour newspaper, noted for its editorial integrity, its interest in social justice and its funky approach. It is the only inner suburban newspaper that is independently owned.

In its short life the paper has attempted something radically different for a suburban publication intelligent, in-depth reporting on the issues that matter. You won’t find stories about pothole gripes in Metro News; what you will find is a weekly double page feature on topics affecting the inner suburbs as a region.

Aboriginal reconciliation, S11, exploited outworkers, local government reform, planning issues and even, in last weeks’ edition, regulation of the porn industry have all graced our pages.

Metro News has, to a large extent, set the agenda for reporting in our region. We regard our competitors in the news arena as the dailies and we are proud of how often we beat them to the mark by breaking the significant news.

In our distribution area, Metro News’ main rival is The Melbourne Times, one of a stable of suburbans owned by the Irish controlled and Queensland based Australian Provincial Newspapers. The outfit is an offshoot of Dr Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers of Ireland. Readers might recall O’Reilly variously as the chairman of Heinz foods, and also as the bloke who unsuccessfully had a crack at buying John Fairfax back in 1991.

In Australia, APN also owns radio outlets, a string of regional mastheads in Queensland and outdoor advertising company Cody.

While Metro News also competes against Fairfax and News Limited mastheads, only APN which operates locally under the laughable title of Melbourne Independent Newspapers responded with a campaign of corporate aggression.

APN made it abundantly clear that it has “deep pockets” and would do whatever it takes to eliminate Metro News.

Real estate agents have been offered incredibly generous deals to stick with The Melbourne Times, with rates slashed by more than half in some cases. Would-be Metro News clients have been threatened with potential legal action if they withdrew advertising from The Melbourne Times.

Metro News editor Glen Rohan ‘ has also been on the receiving end of APN’s legal harassment.

Last week Rohan found himself in the County Court fighting an action bought by APN. Metro News advertisers were dragged into the legal fray as APN subpoenaed them as witnesses.

Melbourne Independent Newspapers claimed Rohan was responsible for The Melbourne Times losing more than $1.2 million in revenue and more than $700,000 in profit in the last 12 months – proof, if it was needed, of just how savagely advertising rates have been slashed in the war against Metro News.

The case was settled for $17,000 all up. Our competitor responded by spreading rumours that Metro News was in liquidation it has voluntarily appointed an administrator and that Rohan was forced to settle for $300,000.

No-one at Metro News argues with fair competition. But cut-throat pricing of the type APN is engaged in is another thing entirely.

Unfortunately, the ACCC has so far not regarded APN’s tactics a matter of concern. The ACCC says predatory pricing allegations are difficult to prove.

But any sensible observer would have to question the purpose of APN’s sudden largesse toward its advertisers, particularly when it admits its unexplained generosity has cost this publicly listed company more than a million dollars in the past year.

Glen Rohan founded The Melbourne Times before selling it to APN in 1994. He left the company in 1999 to establish Metro News because of what he regarded as unwarranted intervention by APN’s Queensland-based management and pressure to implement decisions that were not in the best interests of advertisers or readers.

Others who remained at The Melbourne Times after his departure could attest to the Queenslanders’ unique view of newspaper life.

Under the brief but eventful editorship of Mitchell Murphy, an APN loyalist brought down from Queensland following Rohan’s departure, readers were treated to innovations such as front pages and lead features in one publication being sold as advertising copy but dressed up as editorial.

It was only after the sale of a front page and lead feature – to the Anti Cancer Council charity no less – made the news in what was dubbed the “cash for coverage” scandal that management backed down and agreed to label such copy advertising.

Another of Mitch’s wonderful ideas that fortunately never made it to print was inserting a “wife’s comment” on the bottom of motoring reviews in The Melbourne Times and other mastheads. Apparently this concept “worked well in Queensland”.

A delegation of journalists informed Mitch that shock, horror a lot of Melbourne Times readers were gay or unmarried, and even if they were not, many would object to the tokenism of his proposal.

Unsurprisingly, most of The Melbourne Times’ editorial staff have resigned over the past 12 months. Alison Dean and Amanda Hurley left with Rohan (along with a number of administrative and advertising staff) to found Metro News. Ingrid Svendsen followed them soon after. There has been a flood of resignations from the paper’s newsroom in recent months.

In an effort to shore up its status, The Melbourne Times was recently re-designed. An APN functionary was even brought down from Queensland to teach the reporters how to write “hip and funky”.

Metro News has never needed remedial lessons to give the punters what they want. It is a paper produced by people who live in and care about the area they serve. Judging by the response from readers and advertisers, Metro News is a newspaper people value. For a one year old publication, the reader recognition and loyalty is extraordinary.

So now Melbourne has to make a decision. Does it want newspapers that are independent in title only or does it want the real thing?

In the short term, Metro News needs an investor who shares our ideals about quality, gutsy local journalism.

But the Metro News case has again highlighted questions about the power wielded by the small band of multinationals that own this city’s newspapers. Surely Melbourne deserves better.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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