StuffMe solution lies in local news

2:59 pm on 3 May 2017

Opinion - The speculation can end. The Commerce Commission has stayed consistent in its conviction that a merger of NZME and Fairfax Media in New Zealand is not in the country's best interests.

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Fairfax and NZME own a raft of major metropolitan, regional and community newspapers, the Stuff website, and a stable of radio stations between them. Photo: SCREENSHOTS, RNZ

Nobody can say the commission was not diligent in its investigations and deliberations. All parties were able to argue their respective cases to such an extent that towards the end, it could be fairly speculated whether the commission was being over-protective of the applicants.

But NZME and Fairfax were unable to persuade the commission to change its preliminary view that the merger would likely substantially lessen competition for both readers and advertisers across all its print operations in 10 regions.

The companies might appeal the decision to the High Court but what was already a difficult path given the size, extent and influence of the two media giants will be even more difficult there. And both companies well know that further delays and uncertainty are in nobody's best interests when they have challenging businesses to maintain and sustain.

Still, the decision must be a shock to both Fairfax and NZME. The companies' leaders had seemingly tied their futures so tightly to the merger that Fairfax's Australian chief executive Greg Hywood even said a refusal would mean "end-game" for some Fairfax operations.

The commission did not fall for Mr Hywood's somewhat clumsy bluff.

Now he and his Fairfax team, as well as the leaders of NZME, have to find a future without the future and the savings they foresaw in a merged entity.

One option he might consider is selling those assets he sees little future in back to their communities, as seems to have successfully happened with the Wairarapa Times-Age.

Or will he and NZME realise that the future might lie in seeing this country as a series of regions, not as some national entity?

Somewhere in all the talk about new, larger audiences it seems to have been forgotten that both companies grew out of strong, local newspapers bought up in a purchasing frenzy between the 1970s and 1990s.

The strength of both Fairfax and NZME still lies in regions sustaining good newspapers. It's surely ironic that on the day the commission announced its final decision, The Press in Canterbury consisted of 26 pages of "newspaper" filled with local content, a 12-page property section, a 20-page At Home tabloid and two advertising inserts.

Print isn't dead. But it dies when it's neglected.

Just like politics, all news is local. What interests the citizens of Auckland doesn't necessarily bother even their closest neighbours in Waikato.

The answers to the issues that bedevil media companies are more likely to be found in regions, albeit in small ways initially, rather than seeking to match or catch international behemoths with unlimited budgets.

The two companies know the importance of their regional operations, of providing reliable and trustworthy information. And they were not exaggerating when they described their fast-changing world, facing international advertising-gobbling competitors who didn't exist 15 years ago.

The Commerce Commission's decision this morning changes none of that. But it does allow the opportunity to see the future is not as black as they thought.

*Clive Lind is a former editor of The Southland Times, The Evening Post and Manawatu Standard.

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