Newspaper editors past and present clash over media merger

There's agreement on the malady, but not on the best medicine for the troubled media industry.
TOM PULLAR-STRECKER/FAIRFAX NZ

There's agreement on the malady, but not on the best medicine for the troubled media industry.

News organisation editors, past and present, have clashed over whether the country's competition watchdog should approve the merger of media companies Fairfax New Zealand and NZME.

More than 30 editors have written to the Commerce Commission to say it got it wrong when it issued a draft ruling last month setting out the reasons why it thought it should torpedo the merger.

Rejecting the merger would cost many jobs and "inevitably spell the end of our ability to maintain quality national and local journalism at scale for New Zealanders", the editors say in their letter.

Its signatories included Fairfax group editor Sinead Boucher, Stuff editor Patrick Crewdson, Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins, NZME editor Shayne Currie and NZ Herald editor Murray Kirkness.

READ MORE:
* More than 30 editors sign letter telling Commerce Commission it's wrong
* Fairfax NZME merger gets draft rejection from Commerce Commission
* Fairfax NZME merger plans explained
* No simple link between media competition and story choice, says US professor
* Report backs Commerce Commission's view on merger risk

 But 11 former editors gave the commission different advice in a separate letter advising it to stick to its initial thinking.

Former Dominion-Post editor Tim Pankhurst, Dominion editor Richard Long and former NZ Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis were among those who feared the "destruction of great mastheads" if the deal proceeded.

The former editors argued "predictions of doom" for newspapers had been overstated and decline was not inevitable.

Any diminution of an "already shallow" media pool should be of concern to all New Zealanders, they said.

"Newspapers – across their print and digital sites – have been subject to waves of redundancies that have seen experienced staff culled, a severe loss of institutional knowledge and a pandering to the lowest common denominator; this is click bait stories that draw the widest audience," they wrote.

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Referring to a comment by Fairfax Media's Australian chief executive Greg Hywood that New Zealand newspapers might be under threat if the merger was blocked, they said the "greater threat comes from offshore publishers who have no feeling for New Zealand's social fabric".

The commission put concerns over media diversity at the front and centre of its November draft ruling.

Chairman Mark Berry said the merger would see one organisation control nearly 90 per cent of the country's print media market, which he said would represent the second-highest level of print media ownership in the world behind only China.

But the 30 editors who wrote in support of the merger said they were "fiercely independent".

"The same goes for the journalists who work with us.

"There is no ego-driven single owner in sight, threatening editors with sackings if they don't fall into line.

"Even if there were, you can be sure the editors and journalists in this country are made of sterner stuff than that," they wrote

Despite the "reality of some job losses in some areas" if the merger went ahead it would give time for digital revenues to grow and new business models to emerge, they wrote.

"We know that the rapid dismantling of local newsrooms and journalism at scale in this country is inevitable if the merger does not proceed."

The arguments are set to dominate a conference that the commission has scheduled to discuss the merger from December 6 till 8. It is due to issue its final ruling by March 15.

 - Stuff

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