AAP has been sold but the ownership is unclear

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 30 June 2020

Corporate lawyer Emma Cowdroy will be the CEO of a leaner Australian Associated Press (AAP) after the sale of the national newswire to a consortium of "philanthropists and impact investors".

Cowdroy is AAP's long-time general counsel. Tony Gillies, the editor in chief, is departing. The current CEO, Bruce Davidson, is reported to be moving to run Pagemasters and Medianet as a separate business.

The detail on the ownership of the new AAP -- sold after 85 years by News Corp, Nine Entertainment and minor shareholders -- is not known but it will be governed by a not for profit board.

The terms of the sale have not been released. Some reports put the price as low as $1 but any buyer would have to prove it had the capital, around $10 million, to keep the newswire going and cover the cost of any redundancies.

The competition watchdog, the ACCC, had been keeping a close eye on the sale process to ensure there were no "inappropriate impediments". A string of news websites, regional media and broadcasters rely on the AAP wire service.

The national news agency will be "a smaller organisation" with fewer staff, according to a statement by the consortium. This hasn't been defined but some reports say about 80 newswire staff will remain from around 130.

The new AAP will have a streamlined service with a focus on news, politics, sport, major events and issues of public interest.

The change in ownership comes into force July 31.

A message to staff late last night was signed "Future AAP".

The statement said the consortium is made up of a number of philanthropists, so far unnamed, led by Nick Harrington and John McKinnon with support from Peter Tonagh, a former News Corp CEO.

"The AAP Newswire will be owned by a not-for-profit entity which will be governed by a board," said the statement. "It will also have an industry advisory committee.

"Andrew Drummond has accepted the role of editor while Nick Harrington, a key leader of our consortium, will join the team in the role of head of strategy and development."

The new owners say they have the common goal of protecting media diversity in Australia.

"We feel the best way to do this is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the AAP Newswire and its provision of independent, quality journalism on issues that matter to all Australians," the statement said.

"We believe that this has never been more important to Australian society and were concerned about the impact that AAP’s closure would have had on independent journalism, on jobs and on the viability of new entrants to the media space."

Cowdroy, the new CEO, said of the sale: "This is not only great news, but it’s vital for our democracy, as public-interest journalism is more important than ever. Fast, factual reporting, objective news and geographical reach to all corners of Australia, is our DNA.”

AAP, owned by Nine, News Corp, Seven West Media and Australian Community Media, in April announced its closure, saying it was unable to compete with free information on the internet.

The initial plan was to sell the valuable commercial pieces of AAP, including Medianet, to fund payouts for staff, and close the newswire.

But the owners were surprised at the depth of interest from potential buyers for the business as a whole, not just the profitable pieces but the national newswire as well.

The new AAP will have a smaller customer base. Both News Corp and NIne, contributing more than $15 million in revenue to AAP, have said they won't be customers post a sale.

News Corp is advanced in building its own internal newswire service which it plans to sell on the open market, starting next year.

Part of the statement from the new owners:

"We intend to build on AAP’s proud 85-year history, continuing to deliver high quality, timely and independent news and information to the Australian media industry while the operation adapts to the emerging environment, unshackled by the constraints of the past ownership structure.

"Some things won’t change. The organisation will continue to trade under the AAP brand and will continue to serve many of the existing customers with the stories and images that they have come to rely on. Many of the team will remain and many of the management roles will be filled by the existing team.

"However, some things will be different as we build the business for a long term, sustainable future. The Newswire will be smaller and will offer a more focused set of services that are highly valued by our customers. This will include a focus on breaking news, politics, sport, major events and issues of public interest.

"We recognise that a smaller organisation means fewer staff and that, as a result, some people will not have roles in the new AAP. While this is regrettable, it is critical that we reposition now to ensure the long-term sustainability of AAP. We know everyone is worried about their individual situations and we hope to be in touch with all staffers as soon as we can in the coming weeks."

“Another key change will be our head office location. As you may be aware, the lease on the Head Office in Rhodes expires later in the year. We do not intend to renew that lease but will relocate to a smaller, more inner city location in a few months time. We will provide more information on this in the next few weeks as plans are firmed up.” 

 

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