The newly independent and privately owned Australian Community Media was "a hugely important asset in the Australian media landscape", new co-owner Antony Catalano has told staff.
"My aim is to make us the biggest and best regional group in the country and that means we have to expand not shrink," Mr Catalano said.
"I prefer to grow businesses and we're in the business of journalism. If we produce really good quality journalism then you are doing a good thing by the business."
Nine Entertainment's sale of the Australian Community Media (ACM) news publishing and printing operations to interests associated with Mr Catalano and Alex Waislitz was completed on July 1.
ACM was formerly part of Fairfax Media, which was absorbed last year by Nine in a $4 billion merger.
Mr Catalano, who spent 26 years with Fairfax, and Mr Waislitz's ASX-listed Thorney Investment Group bought ACM from Nine for $115million. Nine confirmed to the ASX this week that it had received $105 million in cash for the sale, and a further $10 million would be paid over the coming 12 months.
Addressing ACM employees for the first time, Mr Catalano said the business had an exciting future ahead as a standalone company.
"Alex and I are particularly excited," he said. "We think we've got a pretty good deal for a pretty amazing business, an incredible collection of assets and a business I think we can grow."
Staff from dozens of sites around the ACM network, which stretches into every state and territory, joined a live video hook-up on Thursday to hear Mr Catalano answer their questions.
He was proud to be able to now say he was an owner of ACM.
"It's got a role that The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald or Channel Nine will never fulfil in Albury-Wodonga and Warrnambool and all of the far reaches of this company," Mr Catalano said.
"No one is going to cover those areas like we do, so we've got to be relevant, we've got to be best and we've got to achieve those targets so we can continue to be in an even richer world of journalism, and a richer business of journalism.
"And I think we can do it."
Joined for Thursday's 90-minute session by ACM managing director Allen Williams, a relaxed and candid Mr Catalano revealed he had already met Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, a former editor of ACM's The Daily Advertiser, which last year celebrated 150 years of serving Wagga Wagga in NSW.
"He's very fond of regional media and wants to see it thrive and has already asked what he can do to support the cause," Mr Catalano said of the Riverina-based Nationals leader.
"I said to Michael McCormack that the first thing I expected was that regional Australians were allocated the same amount of advertising from government in proportion with the cities and he totally agrees with that."
With more than 160 news brands publishing online and in print, the ACM network includes 14 daily titles, such as The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, The Courier in Ballarat and The Examiner in Launceston, and the country's largest agricultural media business, including The Land in NSW, Queensland Country Life, Farm Weekly in Western Australia and Stock Journal in South Australia.
Mr Catalano said he saw exciting growth potential in the agriculture sector.
"When I look at the fact that people are prepared to pay more than the cover price of The Land to have it mailed, it shows just how important that business is," he said.
Mr Catalano said one of the "obvious opportunities" that made the ACM business attractive was growing regional Australia's share of advertising spending from national advertisers.
"Thirty-four per cent of the Australian population live outside of the metro [cities] and as an industry we only get 10 per cent of the advertising pie," he said.
"I will get out there, roll my sleeves up and do some deals and try to get us some revenue."
Mr Catalano said he was planning a digital strategy to complement ACM's print offering in real estate.
ACM has ongoing branding and printing agreements in place with Domain, the property listings portal Mr Catalano led for four years as CEO, including through its 2017 spin-off from Fairfax.
Domain is now 59 per cent controlled by Nine.
"We need to have a very clever, good user experience and digital solution for our customers," Mr Catalano said.
"The better your advertising revenue and the more money you make out of that the more you can support journalism."
Asked by staff if he and Mr Waislitz were planning to use the country-wide reach of ACM to establish a national masthead, Mr Catalano said he liked "the idea of it".
"I think there's room for more than just one national newspaper," he said.
"But what I'm not going to do is experiment with some sort of altruistic view of wanting to create a national paper. It has to be funded ... I'm not going to do a National Times experiment and lose $20 million.
"It would be fantastic for our company to be producing great regional coverage and great political coverage and great stories from everywhere and feed it into somewhere where all Australians can enjoy it."
Asked about the former Fairfax Media's charter of editorial independence, the one-time Age police reporter said he understood the role of journalism and supported editorial independence.
"I was a journalist for 17 years and I've spent 33 years in media so I've been a journalist longer than I haven't been a journalist, so I love it ... and I understand it," he said.
"I know why I consume media and what media I consume because it's interesting, it's compelling, it's relevant. If the content is not good or if the content's been compromised because it's not been invested in then a charter of independence won't save you."
Most of ACM's regional titles had traditionally never needed a charter of independence, he said.
"The kudos they have within their communities holds because of the quality of those publications not because of some mantra that the board signed up to."
On the subject of subscriptions for online access to news, which more than 40 ACM mastheads including The Canberra Times have introduced at their websites over the past year, Mr Catalano said good content was worth paying for and it appeared the ACM subscription strategy was "working and working well".
"I do subscribe to papers and I do pay for papers that I want to read," he said.
"But if you want to have paywalls you want to make sure that I want to pay for it because of the journalism."
Asked if he and Mr Waislitz were considering selling any of ACM's significant property holdings, Mr Catalano acknowledged that the $60 million worth of land presented an opportunity to support the media business.
"I don't know why any newspaper group or any media company needs to own [property] assets," he said.
"We don't need to own them. I had 322 staff at Metro Media Publishing and we leased our building."
The new owners had already visited printing press sites that sit on large parcels of land in Canberra and Sydney's North Richmond.
"In Canberra there is a lot of land and it was built for a business at a different time," Mr Catalano said. "Do we need to own all of that land? Do we need to own any of it?"
- James Joyce is the Canberra-based executive editor of ACM.