Prominent Melbourne media identity and former Liberal Party bagman Ron Walker has refused to rule out buying The Age, saying he has a “constant interest” in acquiring the ailing paper.
Speculation over a sale reached fever pitch today after Jeff Kennett used his regular Herald Sun column to pronounce that Melbourne could not afford to become a one-paper town and that The Age currently “has no economic future”. Kennett had no doubt that a “consortium of Victorians” would be prepared to buy the masthead and revive its future as a paper of record.
Such a consortium, led by the former Fairfax chairman in Walker, already exists.
Last year, Walker and investment banker John Wylie approached Fairfax management with a bid to buy 3AW and The Age in a package deal, but the salvo was rebuffed. The grand prix chief had previously tried to snatch the paper alongside Hudson Conway buddies Lloyd Williams and Rod Carnegie when parent company Fairfax was in receivership in the early 1990s.
“If there comes a point in time when they want to sell The Age, providing they can supply content, then there are people out there who would like to buy The Age and recreate it in a different form, then there’d be interest,” Walker told Crikey today.
“So there’s always been a constant interest there. It’s a great newspaper, a great masthead and provided it could be run in a cost-efficient way, it would be very well received by Victorians.
“Some prominent families that have followed The Age and respected The Age all their lives that would not want to see it disappear.”
Walker said that while there hadn’t been any specific recent talks on the matter given Fairfax’s current restructuring plans, “we’re certainly not ruling it out”. He said that next year, the paper might only be physically printed on two or three days a week.
In his column, Kennett urged Age management to “Cut your costs and losses and run!”
“I am…sure a new consortium would allow editorial independence and would be politically neutral. It would be driven by the challenge to succeed.”
Leading private equity players would normally show an interest in running a ruler over a purchase, but Crikey understands activity on that front has waned in recent months. One reason could be Fairfax’s parlous financial state.
If Walker and co proceed with the purchase even for the token price of $1, it is likely to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in restructuring costs as the consortium moves to take the print edition off palliative care. And the books are already dripping with red ink.
At its recent annual results presentation, Fairfax reported a staggering $2.7 billion loss as it wrote down its mastheads’ value. The company reported that its print editions were making about $60 million a year — but they appeared to alter the previous methodology by taking out half the editorial costs and dumping them into the digital side of the business. Crikey understands that wages figure is about $50 million, meaning that the print organs are currently not making any money at all.
The Walker consortium would therefore have to redesign the paper’s business model and pursue a serious editorial strategy.
One Melbourne media player told Crikey this morning that an Age sale would be a disaster for the buyers when the real state of the finances became clear.
“In the 1990s is was about buying the rivers of gold and paying an appropriate multiple. But now anyone who buys it has to have a commercial perspective on it. And that’s horrifying.”
A buy would also be difficult considering the paper’s footprint is difficult to disentangle from the broader Fairfax empire comprising websites, iPad apps, The Sydney Morning Herald and the classifieds site Domain.com.au.
It is not the first time Kennett has called for change at The Age. Last year he accused then-editor Paul Ramadge of presiding over an organ that had “lost its reputation for journalistic excellence and leadership”. Ramadge hit back two days later in the pages of his own paper, accusing the former advertising executive of acting in a “bloody-minded way, bereft of fact”. And as premier, he famously maintained a vicious disdain.
Fairfax Media spokesman Brad Hatch responded with a flat “no” when asked whether The Age was for sale early this afternoon.