Conversation cops it? In an interview with Peter van Onselen last night, Christopher Pyne made comments that have been widely perceived to signal an end to government funding for The Conversation. But Conversation founder and executive director Andrew Jaspan isn’t so sure, sending Crikey a transcript of Pyne’s comments with a suggestion to read them more closely when we asked him for comment this morning.

The transcript is, well, somewhat more ambiguous than you might expect.

Peter Van Onselen: Is there any truth to the suggestion that you may be cutting funding for The Conversation?

Christopher Pyne: Well The Conversation was initiated by the previous Labor government. It had a shelf life for three years by which time The Conversation is meant to be self-sustaining. They were given 3 and a half million dollars, in that time they have expanded to Africa, the United States and the UK and I expect that they are in a position where they will be self-sustaining otherwise they wouldn’t be able to expand overseas in the way that they have. They do a great job and the contract they signed with the Commonwealth was to be self-sustaining in 3 years. And they received 3 and a half million dollars to do just that.

PVO: But I think they’re hoping that they’ll get another contract for a further period — is that off the table as far as the government’s concerned in these lean economic times?

CP: Well they are lean budgetary times, Peter, and we do believe The Conversation does a great job. Universities support it as well, universities put their own money in, it is a forum for academics to have their research papers published, and I believe that is a useful service. Whether the Australian taxpayer should be requested to fund that is another matter, and you will be, you will find out in the budget on Tuesday the outcome of spending, of particular spending measures. [and I’m not going to speculate about decisions we’ve made]

PVO: But is sounds like they’re not getting any more money, that would be a fair assumption, wouldn’t it?

CP: Well no, Peter, all I’m saying is that they have a contract signed with the Commonwealth to be self-sustaining in three years. They were given 3 and a half million dollars to do so, the universities support The Conversation as well, and they are an online portal for academics to have their research papers published and articles published. Whether that is justifiable use of taxpayers’ money into the future is something that I am considering right now, and obviously I’ve been lobbied by many people, and by The Conversation themselves, and now obviously being lobbied by you on national television, and I’d be surprised if your viewers thought this was the most important issue facing the Australian government on Tuesday in the budget.

It’s worth noting that government funding doesn’t make up a majority of the dough that goes to keeping The Conversation afloat. The Conversation has expanded to the United States, the UK, Indonesia and is soon launching in Africa. Each national expansion is self-sustainable — head office in Melbourne provides the model and website infrastructure, along with a set of editorial principles, but no cash.

But even the Australian branch doesn’t principally rely on the government for funding. Half its budget comes from partner universities, Jaspan told Crikey last year, while another big chunk comes from corporate donations. In the 2013 budget, donating to the site was made tax deductible. Individual readers can also donate, though it’s not clear how much this contributes to the bottom line. — Myriam Robin

Regional publishing takes another hit. The Border Mail, one of the papers being slashed by Fairfax and one we’ve paid particular attention to before, is losing its editor.

After 17 years at the paper, Di Thomas on Monday revealed she’d decided to step down. Her last day is June 19. She said:

“The decision has been a difficult one to make, but it is a decision that is right for me, giving me the opportunity to spend some important time with family and complete my law studies. It has been my absolute pleasure to work at The Border Mail for the past 17 years and serve as reporter, chief of staff, deputy editor and most recently, as editor since October 2012. The calibre of the staff and their passion for the masthead and its reputation are the reasons The Border Mail will survive and thrive in the face of new challenges in the months to come.”

Thomas said her two proudest achievements had been the paper’s campaign for a new Headspace centre, which opened last month, and the paper’s coverage of the 2003 Alpine bushfires.

Other than finishing her law degree and spending time with her family, Thomas hasn’t indicated what she’ll do next. It’s worth noting The Nationals have been looking for a high-profile local candidate to take on federal independent Cathy McGowan, having recently approached the former ABC Country Hour journo and now Benalla Ensign editor Libby Price, who turned them down. Surely Thomas would be one such high-profile possibility, but she shot the suggestion out of the water when we asked. “No, I have not been approached by any political party regarding running for any seat,” she said.

Oh well, it was worth a try. — Myriam Robin

News’ earnings look grim. The Murdoch clan’s News Corp missed earnings estimates badly for the three months to March, as the company was hit by the impact of the strong US dollar (as expected), and lower ad revenues (again) from its newspapers in the US, UK and Australia. And CEO Robert Thomson confessed in a statement with the earnings report that News had faced “some revenue challenges”. Net profit slumped a nasty 53% for the three months. It was a weak result for the quarter.

Instead of talking up the traditional publishing and cable TV interests in the US, UK and Australia, Thomson was upbeat about News Corp’s acquisition of, a property site, saying the company had become a “global leader in digital real estate”, with the move underpinning “long-term expansion”. But the financial report showed weaknesses in the Australian operations of REA Group with real estate listings falling in the quarter — a development overlooked by the CEO — and an interesting bit of news for all those real estate bulls in Australia.

News’ earnings were again hit by legal payments and fees associated with the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Net expenses related to various legal settlements were US$15 million compared with US$20 million in the equivalent period last time. But News gets most of those costs reimbursed by 21st Century Fox under an indemnity agreement.

News reported third-quarter revenues of US$2.06 billion, down from US$2.08  billion a year earlier. Net income plunged to just US$23 million from US$48 million. Group earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) fell from US$175 million to US$163 million.

The cable business in Australia (Fox Sports Australia) produced a flat result, but the real shocker was at Foxtel, where revenues were hit by the stronger dollar, but earnings were whacked by higher costs. Foxtel revenues fell US$77 million to US$620 million in the March quarter, from US$697 million in the same quarter of 2014 ”due to negative foreign currency fluctuations.” And as impressive as the performance in the digital real estate business was, it was all due to the takeover of Move Inc and a full quarter of its contribution, as well as that from REA Group. — Glenn Dyer

Acquisitions boost Fairfax. While Fairfax Media reports its first revenue growth in years, the real story was in its core print newspaper operations in Australia and New Zealand, where revenue gains were scant in the first four months of this year. In a trading update delivered to a Sydney investment conference and lodged with the ASX this morning, CEO Greg Hywood said revenues for continuing businesses edged up just under 1% in the four months to April 26, compared to the same period last year.

He said the was not on a “like-for-like” basis (the best way to compare sales movements) as it included new businesses — such as real estate business MMP since February, the operation (since last October) and its taking control of the Macquarie Radio Network last month. Revenues at the Metro Media division, which includes real estate advertising business Domain, were up about 7%, but revenues from the publishing revenues (The Australian Financial Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald) fell 7%.

Meanwhile, Hywood said revenue at Fairfax’s radio stations was up 9% on a continuing business basis, which excludes 96FM in Perth (which has been sold APN) and includes four weeks of the combined Macquarie Radio Network. — Glenn Dyer

Video of the day. SBS content director Helen Kellie and Blacktown mayor Stephen Bali face off on Lateline, in one of the more complete airings of the issues around Struggle Street … 

Front page(s) of the day. UK front pages, 24 hours before polling opens. Not that anyone’s panicking …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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