Conor King likes to get his daily news fix by reading a printed newspaper in the morning.
Aged in his 50s, the Pascoe Vale South resident is a long-time subscriber to both the print and digital versions of The Age and The Australian, but given a choice he prefers the hard copy experience. He likes the way editors select and craft the presentation of stories, the weighting of the flow of news from the previous 24 hours. He also enjoys the puzzles in the back.
Lately, he’s been waiting too long for the thwack of the newspaper into his front garden. Oftentimes it doesn’t arrive until 9am, or 10, or 11. Way too late to flick through over breakfast. Then, he says, at random moments, as often as one day in 10, the papers don’t arrive at all.
In the ‘old days’, Mr King would simply have called the local newsagent, who would explain what went wrong and even deliver another copy.
These days when his papers are missing, Mr King calls the general customer service number – and waits – or completes an online form. The publishers might extend his subscription, he says, but they won’t re-deliver that day, or – to his frustration – acknowledge any ongoing, systemic issues with delivery.
Newspaper distribution systems across Melbourne are presently in the throes of a seismic shift with ramifications for subscribers, newsagents and small businesses. This comes on the heels of disruptions caused by technical and production issues at the Truganina printing plant shared by Nine and News Corp.
The changeover from a local to centralised delivery service for all printed papers across Melbourne – into the hands of a single company, National Distribution Services – is underway and will be completed in coming months, according to a News Corp Australia letter to newsagents.
While News Corp – which publishes the Herald Sun and The Australian – declined to comment, in its explanation to the agents, the company said the changes were prompted by newsagents handing back delivery zones.
Nine Entertainment Co – which owns The Age newspaper – will be following the centralised model and using the same contractor, the managing director of publishing at Nine, James Chessell, confirms. Other smaller publishers indicate they also have little choice but to sign on.
“We are as disappointed with the delivery problems as you are”, Mr Chessell and editor Gay Alcorn said in a message to Age readers in this week’s Saturday Age. The apology to subscribers for late or missed deliveries due to printing issues, also acknowledged the consolidation of home delivery underway across Melbourne and the high number of calls to customer service.
While the consolidation of newspaper delivery areas into larger zones has been underway for some time, the appointment of a single delivery contractor for all of greater Melbourne was unexpected, according to the Victorian Association for Newsagents.
“We had a clear understanding that a minimum of six (6) distributors would be chosen”, the association said in a statement on its website.
The distribution changes are an “own goal” by newspaper publishers that will ultimately let down their customers, says Mark Fletcher, who has been covering the developments on his Australian Newsagency Blog.
“The Australian newsagency model was unique. It was the ultimate local service,” he says.
“It really was a cost-effective way of getting newspapers delivered to homes on a daily basis.”
“Previously, a home delivery customer could walk into their local newsagent and say, ‘I didn’t get the Herald Sun’, and they could pick up a newspaper for free from the shop.”
The new delivery model will eliminate that local connection and personal service, Mr Fletcher says. He says the changes are about newspapers “managing the death of their product”.
While many newsagents have progressively geared their business to retail trade and lotteries as deliveries of printed daily papers have shrunk, the fallout of recent developments for distribution businesses has been devastating.
Lygon Media Distributors – a newspaper distribution business co-owned by Fabian Pizzica – made its final delivery run on Sunday, 27 March. Mr Pizzica has been selling or delivering newspapers since 1989, working from age 18 in his father’s Lygon Street newsagent.
In the mid ‘90s, brothers Fabian and Nick joined forces with cousins Robert and Pat (who has since passed away) to form the newspaper distribution arm of the business.
From a few suburban paper runs they grew Lygon Media into a service that stretched from the northern suburbs down to Docklands and Port Melbourne and delivered around 15,000 papers a day.
Until recently, the family-owned company was one of eight-to-10 remaining larger newspaper distributors, which alongside around 100 smaller newsagents, delivered daily papers around greater Melbourne.
As one of the larger operators, Mr Pizzica says Lygon Media had hoped to win a contract under the new model when News Corp invited tenders last year.
“We were out there buying up territories, increasing the volume. We were spending money and borrowing money to buy more territories, thinking that we’d be big enough for [News Corp] to look favourably on us,” Mr Pizzica says.
But their efforts didn’t deliver a contract. Now, he says, he’s out of a job and the business “isn’t worth anything and we have to pay off debt”.
The recent push to consolidate distribution in Melbourne – a change already implemented in Sydney and South East Queensland – has come about due to the global rise of online news and the systemic decline in people reading printed newspapers.
In the past two decades, Australian print news circulation plunged from 2.4 million to less than 800,000, Crikey reported in 2020.
Print news readers have halved in the last five years according to polling by the University of Canberra, While 38 percent of people relied on print as a general source of news in 2016, this dropped to 20 percent in 2021.
Only four percent of those surveyed in 2021 primarily got their news from print.
The decline of print readers means a drop off in advertising revenue for news publishers.
Media academic, journalist and author, Dr Margaret Simons, says while print display advertising – those large, attention-grabbing ads – still works and makes money, the days of “pages and pages of classified advertising” that used to fill the Saturday edition are long gone. This poses a problem for print news, because printing and distributing hardcopy newspapers is expensive.
“The very moment there isn’t a dollar to be made out of distributing the print product, it will close”, Dr Simons says. “It’s a tiny proportion of people now who still get a print newspaper, largely [an] aging population”.
Nobody really knows when the end of print will arrive, that timing is likely to depend on variables such as the cost of newsprint and distribution, she says.
In the company’s 2021 annual report, Nine newspapers marked an ‘inflexion point’ where revenue growth from digital subscriptions outpaced circulation declines in print. The report added, “the profitability of each incremental digital subscriber dollar is markedly higher than a print dollar.”
But Nine’s Mr Chessell told The Citizen the physical printed edition of The Age remained a critical part of the masthead.
“We will continue to print The Age for many years to come, and the consolidation of printing and distribution makes that easier,” he says.
But if delivery hiccups aren’t resolved soon, it risks the loss of one more once rusted-on subscriber. Conor King says that in the absence of the physical paper turning up, he’s increasingly finding his news online, where “everything’s open to you”. He’s enjoyed the New York Times, which offers a cheaper online subscription than The Age.
Despite his long affection for a hard copy newspaper, unreliable deliveries have lessened his connection to the local papers, he says.
By news publishers “de-emphasising the paper bit – which is the thing that is the most locally relevant part of it – they’re also allowing you to check the rest of the world out.”