This week Crikey‘s New Kid on the Block series profiling new media and indie start-ups looks at Australia’s newest newspaper — launched just this Saturday — in what represents a major increase in media diversity in the fast-growing far-north Queensland town of Mackay, previously a monopoly newspaper market.

It’s The Mackay Telegraph, a hard-copy giveaway with a 25,000 print run and available online, although its website is still to come.

The launch edition — which followed a previous promotional edition the week before — carried messages from Prime Minister Julia Gillard, opposition leader Tony Abbot and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh all welcoming the paper, which opened with a front-page campaign to reopen the local swimming pool.

As editor Melissa Grant puts it: “I got into journalism not only to inform people … but also to work for a media outlet that fights on behalf of the community.”

The new publication — with a first edition comparatively rich in advertising — will be a competitor to the Daily Mercury, the long-standing local published by APN News and Media.

And there is a story behind the launch of The Mackay Telegraph, because Grant and the 100% owner and CEO, Darren McVean, are former APN employees. Less than two years ago, APN was boosting McVean as the new general manager for the Mercury. We can guess the rest.  The back story is related to the decision last May by APN to close the local printing plant, and move the work to the Sunshine Coast.

In his launch edition of The Mackay Telegraph, McVean talks about his family history in media — his father was involved in television, rising to be second in command of the Seven Network. McVean announces his intention to “build a media company that treats its staff like family and provides a media platform befitting this great city. Our plan is to grow through providing exceptional service to our readers and advertisers.”

He delivers a broadside at “large corporate players” in media “purchasing bulk media assets and accumulating massive debt along the way. As is often the case in the corporate world, head office is the last to feel the effects of any cuts and all too often it is the local staff and the community that feel the effect of any redundancies and closure of local production.”

So while the new publication is undoubtedly, as Abbott puts in the launch edition, an expression of faith in the future of newspapers, it is also a byproduct of the shakeouts in the industry. Abbott also takes a swipe at the Finkelstein inquiry into news media, and its central recommendation for a mandatory self-regulation. The opposition, he says, believes in the role of a free media.

Meanwhile, Gillard welcomes the new paper as an example of a free media, and says her government “wouldn’t want it any other way”. Interesting.

The Mackay Telegraph is still building its staff but, according to Grant and McVean, will eventually employ seven journalists and up to 20 people.

It will begin with a Saturday edition only, but in April will expand to two editions a week, each delivered flat wrapped to homes and available for free from newsagents. The website and iPhone and iPad apps are in development and will be launched at about the same time in Beta form.

Meanwhile, McVean says he has plans to expand to regional centres to the south and west of Mackay, in a “realistic way” but beginning as soon as April.

So can this new venture, being launched at a time of pervading gloom about mainstream media, possibly make a profit? McVean is confident. The Mackay region, he says, has a total advertising market of $25-30 million a year. There is clearly room for another player, he says.

As for the closure of the APN publishing plant, this presented his venture with an opportunity because it reduced the commercial advantage of the incumbent. “It’s not for me to add my spin, but I think it was seen as an under-investment in a pretty vibrant region,” he said.

The Mackay Telegraph is printed at the News Limited site in Townsville. The editorial strategy is to provide all the features that people might expect in a daily newspaper, including national news (sourced through AAP) and a racing guide, but in a freebie. McVean is proud the first edition was on the front lawns of Mackay households by 3am on its launch day. The heart of the publication will be local news.

While he is an enthusiast about the capabilities of the internet, and promises an “all bells and whistles” digital presence soon, he says that hard-copy newspapers still present regional markets with advertising opportunities that locals understand.

Newspapers by themselves, says McVean, are often still profitable. What too often weighs them down is their parent companies, who have debts and other problems.

Meanwhile, Grant says: “It’s not very often in this economic climate and media landscape that a new newspaper gets off the ground — it truly is exciting to be part of that. The launch of The Mackay Telegraph is reflective of the region’s unprecedented economic growth, climate and lifestyle which provide such great opportunity.

“It is our mission to support and embrace what is great about the Mackay region. We will also be a champion of the Mackay community as it deals with the pressure created by the unprecedented growth, both economically and population-wise.”

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey