Michael Waite, publisher of the Naracoorte News (Image: Kate Hill)

Antony Catalano’s Australian Community Media (ACM) was always going to do well from the government’s $50 million regional news package. Now we know just how well.

This month the government announced ACM would receive $10.4 million of government funding — almost two-thirds of the $18 million put aside for publishers as part of the Public Interest News Gathering program, a grants scheme that was set up to help regional media businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

The decision has angered independent publishers who say it’s another leg-up for one of the biggest players in the industry, just as regional communities are seeing new publications spring to life.

“I’m competing against a corporation that gets $10 million dollars which, any way you slice it, isn’t fair,” Michael Waite, publisher of the Naracoorte News, told Crikey.

“We have been operating very successfully and we’re doing very well, and all of a sudden the person who left the arena, vacated the town, is getting federal money to put us out of a job.”

Waite set up the Naracoorte News in April after Catalano shut the only paper in town, The Naracoorte Herald, during the pandemic.

Catalano acquired the Herald along with a stable of other news publications as part of a $125 million acquisition of Fairfax’s old Rural Press division from Nine last year. The company rebranded as ACM and controls around 160 regional and metro newspapers including The Canberra Times and the Newcastle Herald.

Waite and other publishers say the grants favour big companies and question how they were calculated, particularly in light of lobbying from some of the industry’s biggest players. The “Save Our Voices” campaign was backed by ACM as well as Prime, Southern Cross and WIN, owned by Bermuda-based billionaire Bruce Gordon.

“It’s indicative of the pressure that this government is up against,” author and The Manning Community News publisher Di Morrissey said.

A Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications spokesperson said that new publications and start-ups such as the Naracoorte News were ineligible for funding as they were unable to show how they could deliver public interest journalism to regional areas. They were also unable to show any evidence of revenue for the year preceding.

The bulk of the $50 million grants scheme went to ACM, Southern Cross ($10 million) WIN ($4.4 million), Prime ($4.7 million) and Nine ($4 million), with smaller publishers sharing the rest.

The ACM funding has been championed by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, himself a former editor of Wagga Wagga’s ACM-owned The Daily Advertiser. McCormack said the money would ensure local content would “continue to be written by local journalists”.

But independent publishers say ACM does not stand for local news.

“There’s nothing independent or investigative about them,” Morrissey said. “The same stories, the same advertorials, the same advertisements run in every paper.”

McCormack told Crikey that Communications Minister Paul Fletcher was ultimately responsible for the allocations but that he “advocated strongly” for funding to support “regional journalism across the country”.

Catalano, who said last year he had the deputy PM’s “ear”, was unavailable for comment.

The public interest news gathering scheme evolved from previous schemes to help regional publishers, and follows a recommendation by the competition watchdog for a targeted grants scheme that supports regional journalism.

A report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last year found that without such a scheme, there was a risk of so-called “news deserts” forming across the country, allowing local governments and policy decisions to go unscrutinised.

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