$27 million a year is a bargain price to buy a government

It’s been Good Times Online as Crikey gets hold of a copy of News Australia’s detailed management accounts for fiscal year 2012-13 (I’ve uploaded a copy here, since the Crikey version, hilariously, is paywalled).

As a way of demonstrating its commitment to journalism, News has threatened to sue anyone who reports on the topic. The fact that The Australian loses $27 million a year (almost as much as the Guardian, despite being a barely-read Canberra local paper rather than a major global news organisation) has been noted as particularly hilarious.

If you try and frame The Australian as a newspaper in the traditional sense, of using content to sell readers to advertisers, then the level of fail here is baffling. News is a private company, not a charitable trust dedicated to furthering the cause of journalism. The continued existence of The Australian (and the continued employment of its coterie of gibbering morons at an average wage of $174,000) is a mystery.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. The News Australia accounts show that the actual value in News Australia comes from its pay-TV businesses.

News Australia’s profit for FY12-13 was $367 million. Its share of profit from pay-TV (Foxtel, Fox Sport and Sky New Zealand) was $230 million. Add in REA (which runs realestate.com.au)’s $146 million profit, and you’re already above total group profit. The newspapers in total – even including the profitable regional tabloids – contribute less than nothing [*].

That breakdown isn’t entirely fair, since it ignores $75 million of parent company costs – which are mostly, but not wholly, newspaper focused – and also $40 million of amortisation costs related to the Foxtel stake (whose accounting treatment I don’t understand). But it makes clear where the financial heart of the business lies, and it’s not in dead trees, or even their digital equivalents. It’s in having a monopoly on pay-TV delivery in Australasia.

Hell, it’s probably the only business of any real worth in the whole of News Corporation, since its assets outside Australia now consist solely of dead-tree businesses.

What are the ongoing risks and opportunities for pay-TV? Well, the biggest opportunity is in gouging people out of even more money for it, and the biggest risk is that people stop subscribing to it. Both of these depend mainly on government: the more draconian copyright legislation is, the more stringently it is enforced, the harder it is for you to just get things from Netflix and iTunes, the more crippled the ABC is, and the slower your broadband Internet is, the more value Foxtel has.

So that’s what The Australian is for. When you’re defending $230 million of annual profit, paying $27 million a year to shape the opinions of Very Serious People in Canberra regarding copyright law, competition law and telecoms policy isn’t a bad investment at all.

[*] per pages 3, 13 and 14 of the accounts. These are complicated by the fact that stakes in the various businesses changed over the year, with some some Fox Sports revenue counting as operating income and some as income from investments.

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