Ailing media conglomerate APN News & Media has ditched its news contract with wire service AAP, deciding instead to launch a new “group bureau” to fill the pages of its 12 daily and 60 community newspapers.

In an email to staff last month, APN editorial director Shane Rodgers announced that the company will dump its AAP feed contract, instead creating eight new positions on an APN newsdesk to better cover major capital city events with a regional slant.

“Currently we miss opportunities to cover national and state events of vital and specific interest to regional readers,” Rodgers explained. “We also have no effective mechanism to cover state and federal parliament from a regional viewpoint, and the large number of regional court cases that end up in the capital cities.”

APN is not totally cutting ties with AAP and will continue to use its data service.

APN reported a $45.1 million full-year net loss last month, while announcing new plans to sells half its outdoor advertising business to private equity. It is not known how much AAP charged for its rolling news feed, which is believed to be partly based on audience reach. This morning, Rodgers denied the move was driven by cost-cutting but did say it would generate “some savings”.

Five reporters will be assigned to a Brisbane desk and one to Sydney. The two-person Canberra press gallery outpost will launch on April 1.

In his expansive email missive, Rodgers also hinted at the challenges of digital publishing, pointing out that by the time AAP stories run in hard copies of the paper, they had already appeared in numerous online locations hours earlier.

“Our real point of difference is our superior coverage of local issues and our ability to interpret broader content for the specific needs of our audience,” he said.

Crikey understands APN’s regional papers currently take the basis of an AAP story then localise the copy, meaning the loss of the wire service isn’t all that significant. Bureau teams will deliver general news coverage to supplement what the papers are largely doing on their own.

The AAP network currently comprises 200 journalists representing 34 languages in 11 offices around the country. APN is the only major newspaper publisher not on the AAP register dominated by Fairfax, News Limited and a smaller stake held by Seven West Media.

In his email, Rodgers also announced changes to APN’s centralised editorial production operation, Centro, in a valiant attempt to maintain “quality and consistency, and capitalise on the potential layout efficiencies created by the new suite of designs”.

There is evidence APN under sprightly CEO Brett Chenoweth is intent on trimming its editorial offerings. Last year, it managed to shift about 35 staff off the books after it announced that paid editions of the Tweed Daily News and the Coffs Coast Advocatewould reduce their frequency and Gold Coast titles the Gold Coast Mail and Robina Mail would go altogether.

Further north on the Sunshine Coast, APN has been presumably bolstered by News Limited’s recent announcement that it would shutter the five-year-old Noosa Journal and sister Weekender magazine.

APN continues to cop heat on another front, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission continuing its probe into its real estate advertising activities, recently undertaking numerous interviews with local real estate agents.

In October, Crikey revealed that the company’s Domain joint venture with Fairfax Media on the Sunshine Coast was offering full-page ads for $72 less than the cost of the raw paper it was printed on. Section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act bans pricing designed to drive competitors to the wall or prevent new market entrants.

Further, section 184 of the Corporations Act prohibits causing detriment to a corporation, an allegation that could potentially be levelled by APN shareholders. The crime carries a penalty of 2000 penalty units ($220,000) or five years imprisonment.

The Sunshine Coast real estate ad market has been turned upside down by the arrival of weekly glossy My Property Preview, part-owned by local real-estate agents. The free-sheet and associated website has ripped about $15 million in revenue out of APN since it launched in 2008 and, according to publisher Michael Kramer, has delivered local agents $45 million in advertising savings.

One APN executive heavily involved in the strategy to vigorously compete with My Property Preview was Stephen Tait, appointed in December to a new position as the CEO of the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. An outraged Kramer told Crikey that the appointment was ironic, given that QCCI’s membership was mostly 60% drawn from  small businesses employing less than 20 people.

Before his elevation to the speakership, local Fisher MP Peter Slipper raised the APN-ACCC issue in parliament. Since then, he has been targeted by APN-owned rag the Sunshine Coast Daily, which recently splashed with the word “tosser” next to a picture of Slipper’s face. The story was ostensibly about Slipper’s recent ejections of MPs from question time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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