Emails, presentations, creditor lists, shareholder agreements and ASIC documents obtained by this list header show that this is not the first time the company has been in financial trouble. Interviews with former employees and investors also indicate that it is not the first time that the man who claims to lead the company, Norris, has used the names of well-known media figures and investors to convince others to support his idea.
In an early edition of News.net, Norris used Rinehart to convince others that his business idea was worth investing in. Rinehart, who requested anonymity when she decided to provide financial support, made the first investment (through Hancock Prospecting) in April 2013, when she was a major shareholder in Fairfax Media and Network Ten.
Shareholders – including Hancock Prospecting (through a company called Influential Associates) – passed a resolution to dissolve the company in 2015, but Norris did not. Instead, he used the support of people like Rinehart to try to raise more money, according to interviews with investors and documents reviewed by this masthead. This was despite claiming elsewhere in emails and documents that he could not reveal who the “major shareholder” was.
Blake Douglas, who was 21 when he donated more than $100,000 to Norris’ project in 2017, said he was told Rinehart was the largest investor in the company.
“Gina Rinehart was the big name he kept dropping,” he said. Douglas, who says he still owes $120,000, said he realized something was wrong when, after a month, Norris hadn’t spent money on a website designer and hadn’t matched his $100,000 donation to the party despite expectations that he would.
Douglas said it got worse about eight months after Norris became desperate for money. “Michael Norris asked me what was the biggest amount I could come up with at the time. I explained that I only had about $6,000 to my name. He said if I wired him $6,000 a day he would give me another $6,000 in 90 days as he expected large amounts of money to come into his… International News Network,” Douglas said of one example. “I followed this money over and over again.
“Gina Rinehart was the big name he kept dropping.
Blake Douglas, an investor in Norris’ business
Norris’ own history as a media owner was the reason people believed in the business. In 1995 his company Unitel paid $2.3 million for Brisbane radio station 4BH before selling it two years later for $11.7 million to APN News & Media. He also owned Ipswich’s Mix 106.9 FM, worked as a partner in the Star Broadcasting network and sat on several corporate boards. He was also active in local government, previously chairing Brisbane Marketing and the City Council’s Economic Development Committee.
Norris used his deep media connections to promote his new business venture. For more than 10 years, Southern Cross Austereo Broadcasting Company, Flight Center Founder Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, Former Editor-in-Chief The AustralianChris Mitchell, Crikey editor Peter Fray, co-founder The new newspaper Bruce Guthrie and former newspaper editor Shane Rodgers, were referred by Norris as people or groups interested in his venture or who had invested. Many who spoke to this masthead said this in a way that they were convinced that the organization had a future. Mitchell, Fray and Guthrie did not invest in the company while Rodgers was owed wages and pensions.
Gillies said of his own experience: “I was hired as a consultant to create and execute an editorial strategy. I was initially described as its editor-in-chief. I was later named CEO but was never really provided with the necessary authority or transparency to carry out the duties and responsibilities that come with such a role.
“I understood that this should happen sometime after the official launch. Exposure has not occurred. Until then, all actions were subject to the approval of the CFO and Michael Norris, and they were assured that the company had the financial capacity.
Documents also show that Norris tried to persuade international news organizations, including publisher Johnston Press The Scot and Yorkshire Post, to invest or participate in his enterprise.
Norris and his partners have launched multiple iterations of News.net under different holding companies. The first version of the outlet was traded under News and Sport International, according to people who invested and documents reviewed by this masthead. The company became International News Network with new shareholders and was registered in the British Virgin Islands (it has since been deregistered). The latest company behind News.net did not have a name (just an ABN), according to ASIC records, while the domain name was registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Other investors in the company and its assets, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said the complicated situation was because many believed they were investing in assets — website domains — without knowing each other. Several investors tried to leave the companies due to alleged contract violations, i.e. never starting a publication or not paying bills. They say they still have money.
Norris, who was declared bankrupt in 2006 and again in 2016, is not listed as a director of any of the companies he has claimed to be associated with. However, according to documents seen by this masthead, he has corresponded with investors for the past decade and is what 2022 staff describe as “the chairman.”
Property appraiser Peter Smith said he and his friend Jim Martin were sold the business plan in 2010.
“He said newspapers were dead, the only way forward was online and he had the model that would make phone numbers as far as money goes.” To support all of this, he had 44,000 domains in Australia and around the world,” Smith said. “Jim and I invested $250,000 and we both voted for shares in the company News and Sports International Limited.
“We gave him the money and never saw any stock. Within four or five months, he called Jim and me down to his department and wanted another $50,000. We both thought it was strange. He explained that one of the other investors had been unable to deposit his money.
Smith, who eventually joined the board of International News Network in April 2014, gave $300,000 to Norris, who did not want to lose control of the company in the midst of raising capital. Norris promised that the news network would start more than eight years. He says he still owes about $500,000.
Smith was a co-investor with Influential Associates, the company that has received a cash injection from Hancock Prospecting. Documents seen by this masthead show Hancock Prospecting funneled $23 million to the International News Network through a group called the Hopgood Ganim Trust, which then funneled the money into an entity called Influential Associates.
Rinehart and other shareholders tried to wind up the business due to concerns about rising debt levels. Creditors’ notes Norris sent from August 2015 showed the entity owed more than $2.3 million to a number of suppliers and consultants, including more than $100,000 to Agence France Presse, $99,047 to Amazon Web Services, $185,904 to CBS Interactive, $126,000 to Bloomberg and $46,813 to ABC.
But correspondence between Norris and his investors shows that he continued to try to raise money from new sources until 2019.
In 2016, Norris was forced following a civil trial in the Brisbane District Court to pay damages to two companies and a man named Danny Sammut, who were persuaded to invest in News and Sport International in 2013.
“Plaintiffs were induced to invest substantial funds in a company named NSI by the second defendant, which they alleged was based on promises by the second defendant that the investment would greatly increase in value because a major investor was coming on board,” the court order states. The project was to establish an online news service and the plaintiffs were told that a large number of the domains had been purchased.
“They were supposed to secure their investment in the project by having some of these domain names registered in their names, but the plaintiffs claimed that this never happened, and indeed they never received any documentary evidence of ownership of shares in anything affiliate partner. with the project.”
Queensland entrepreneur Mason Fok, who started working with Norris in 2013 as a developer, went so far as to file a police report over the theft of his domain name. He has not received a report from the police for several months.
“Michael Norris managed to collect $187,000 in debt from me for unpaid wages, breach of contract interest and even News.net charges on my personal Visa card,” Fok said. “I was told that I would be paid and that international payments had been made although they were delayed due to the new international payphone laws. I later learned through others who have been affected by Michael Norris that no such payment had even been initiated.
Norris’ partner Munro, who was a board member in 2017 when Douglas invested, told News.net employees in mid-October that they planned to cease operations after failing to secure financing. Meanwhile, new information was filed by Munro in August under the name News.net Pty Ltd.
Munro told this masthead that he had never participated in previous versions of the site. “[It was] long before my time. The only thing I’m worried about is getting funds from the parent company to pay the wages.”
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