You’d rarely, as media analyst Mark McDonnell points out, mention Seek and APN News and Media in the same breath. Certainly not in flattering terms. While Seek has been one of the country’s standout digital performers, the story of APN in recent times has been one of management chaos, dwindling revenues and huge debt levels.

This week has finally seen some positive news for the media conglomerate — which owns newspaper, radio, digital and outdoor advertising assets in Australia and New Zealand. Three months after the company’s chief executive and chairman resigned in spectacular circumstances, APN announced News Limited’s New South Wales regional director Michael Miller as its new CEO on Monday. On top of his News credentials, Miller also has broadcasting and digital experience through board roles at Carsguide.com.au and Fox Sports.

While APN’s share price remains low at 39 cents, it has lifted by 56% since the start of the year according to McDonnell, a BBY analyst. In the media field that’s an increase rivalled only by Seek (54%) and well above Fairfax (23.5%) or Seven West Media (28.7%). It’s a sign, McDonnell says, the market has realised the pounding it gave APN for its boardroom shenanigans ignored some of the company’s advantages.

“We talk a lot about APN as if it was only a newspaper company, but it has half the commercial radio stations in New Zealand and a number of successful radio stations here,” McDonnell said. “This is not just a company running The New Zealand Herald and a few billboards.”

Amid all the doom and gloom about dwindling media revenues, the relative resilience of commercial radio hasn’t got much attention. But the Australian Radio Network — a joint venture between APN and Clear Channel International — lifted its revenues by 5% last year. Among ARN’s stations is classic hits channel WSFM, which claimed top spot among Sydney FM stations in the most recent ratings survey, breaking 2DAY FM’s seven-year reign at number one.

But there’s no escaping, as Fusion media analyst Steve Allen argues, that APN continues to have a “volatile cocktail” on its board and share registry. Or that half of APN’s revenues still come from its Australian and New Zealand newspapers.

“The pain Fairfax is going through has only been partly felt by APN to date,” says Fusion media analyst Steve Allen. That’s because APN has a higher-proportion of non-newspaper businesses and because many of its papers are local. The drift of advertising towards the internet hasn’t yet been as profound at regional papers — dominated by APN in Queensland and northern NSW — as at metros and nationals.

“The old adage you can’t save your way to a future is very pertinent here.”

But Allen warned: “Legacy assets won’t produce the same returns in the long term. Unless you can diversify or transform your existing assets you’re in strife. Change is upon us — it’s coming like a cyclone. Having regional newspapers protects you a little but not a lot.”

Unlike Fairfax, Allen says APN has failed to unveil a comprehensive strategy on the transition from print to digital. “Hiring Michael Miller gets a lot of ticks, but what is the task he’s been set? That hasn’t been enunciated,” he said.

Other media analysts Crikey spoke to questioned how much influence Miller will wield over APN’s powerful print, outdoor advertising and radio silos.

Selling off newspaper assets to Fairfax or News Limited has long been discussed as a partial solution to APN’s woes. Citi analyst Justin Diddams supports the idea of an asset swap between Fairfax’s New Zealand newspapers and APN’s Queensland papers. He says this would allow both companies to achieve greater efficiencies and allow Fairfax to extend the reach of property site Domain into Queensland. “Domain virtually doesn’t exist in Queensland,” he noted.

There are roadblocks to this scenario — not least whether it would be approved by New Zealand regulators concerned about media concentration. Some analysts reckon News Limited acquiring APN’s Queensland papers is more likely.

While BBY analyst Mark McDonnell approves of APN’s cost-cutting drive — the publishing division is slicing $50 million off expenditure over two years — he notes the structural issues facing the company remain. “The old adage you can’t save your way to a future is very pertinent here,” he said.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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