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News Corp sells Tasmanian Country to PR agency

Font PR, a Tasmanian-based public relations agency, has bought an agricultural newspaper on the brink of closure from News Corp.

The sum of the sale of the Tasmanian Country was not disclosed, but the transaction brings Font PR’s tally of Tasmanian-based newspapers to six. Other Font PR-owned mastheads include the Derwent Valley Gazette, Sorell Times, Tasman Gazette, East Coast View, and Tasmanian Business Reporter.

The PR agency said the Tasmanian Country – which will now be edited by Karolin Macgregor, supported by reporter-at-large Roger Hanson – is the “same great weekly paper” with the “same great rural content”, but will now be “100% locally owned, 100% locally produced and 100% independently edited”.

“This means that instead of being closed, the Tasmanian Country – the Voice of Rural Tasmania – will continue to be published weekly,” the business said in a statement posted to Twitter.

The success of the sale is an unexpected turnaround from Font PR’s original, and apparently, unsuccessful, bid to take control of the Tasmanian Country. The intended closure of the paper – which has been published weekly since 1980 and covers Tasmanian agricultural stories – was announced in May. Font PR posted on Facebook that while it wished to purchase the paper, it was not for sale.

“Over the past day, Font has been approached by a number of people asking us to purchase the ‘Tasmanian Country’ newspaper and ensure its continued operation,” the agency wrote.

“We would like to let you know that while we have reached out to News Ltd to express an interest in doing so, unfortunately we understand that the newspaper is not for sale.

“Obviously this is disappointing because like many Tasmanians we would like to see the newspaper continue, but we respect the rights of News Ltd as the owner to choose what they do with their own publications.”

But Font PR’s stake in newspapers has been met with some concerns. This time last year, the agency – led by two former Liberal Party advisers – was finalising its purchase of The Sorell Times and The Tasman Gazette. Martine Haley was announced as editor of those titles, bringing with her extensive experience as a News Corp editor, but also a scandal.

In 2018, then an adviser to the Tasmanian Premier, Haley used a fake Facebook profile in an attempt to have Cricket Australia reprimand an employee who spoke about the lack of abortion services in Tasmania. A story by the ABC resulted in Haley tendering her resignation.

There have also been concerns voiced about the journalistic integrity of a PR company, motivated by clients’ interests, owning and running newspapers. Font PR did not respond to a request for comment on this issue. News Corp would also not address the conflict of interest concerns, but confirmed the sale and wished Font PR the best.

“The sale follows an extensive review of our community and regional portfolio to simplify our operations to better serve our consumers and clients with a more digital focus, consistent with our global strategy. We wish the new owners all the very best,” a spokesperson said.

The PR agency now owns six newspapers

Despite recently making between 500 and 1,000 roles redundant as it closed the print editions of more than 100 papers, this week, News Corp announced it would be launching 50 new digital-only titles over three years. The first 15 titles, primarily serving regional areas, are due to launch in September, staffed by one journalist each.

News Corp and regional competitor Australian Community Media have both closed print centres as part of the companies’ response to COVID-19. In April, ACM suspended more than 150 non-daily titles and stood down employees working at, and printing, those mastheads.

Two weeks ago, News Corp launched its own newswire after pulling funding from AAP, which survives thanks to a last-minute reprieve in the form of a consortium of investors, fronted by former News Corp executive Peter Tonagh.

And at the beginning of the month, former WPP AUNZ CEO Mike Connaghan joined News Corp to lead its commercial content division, and it was announced that chief operating officer Damian Eales would be moving to New York to take up the newly-created role of global head of transformation.

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