Post-Fairfax & NZME non-merger it’s time for journalism to get bold

It’s been a day* of doom and gloom for New Zealand’s mainstream media, despite a landmark ruling in favour of media diversity. After several delays since its draft decision last November, the Commerce Commission released a long-anticipated final decision on Fairfax Media and NZME’s merger application, rejecting it on the basis of unprecedented media concentration. The merger would have seen the two companies join forces to fight global media giants like Facebook and Google, who they say are inhaling a fair chunk of the New Zealand media market’s advertising revenue pie.

Fairfax Media and NZME are the two biggest media companies in the country and with a small population of just over 4.5 million, the presence of such a combined conglomerate – despite its proposed power to provide competition to the likes of Facebook – would be devastating for media diversity and local competition, argued ComCom in its decision. A merger would take the country’s already concentrated media ownership to a new level. Together, the companies would completely saturate New Zealand’s newspaper sector; Fairfax and NZME each claim their products already reach at least 75% of the population daily.

The rejection spells doom for the two companies, who have warned that the ruling will nonetheless put an end to business as usual for the newspaper industry. Editorial cuts are just the tip of an iceberg of threatened disruptions in New Zealand, with regional and local news outlets set to be reshaped in the near future. Meanwhile, Fairfax Australia is already looking to make a quick sale of its New Zealand assets, and has today cut 125 editorial jobs in its Australian offices, with journalists in Sydney and Melbourne voting today to go on strike for the next week. “The [merger] decision is in the public interest as no one single company controls most of the online and print news in New Zealand,” wrote AUT academic and prominent media commentator Merja Myllylahti earlier today. “However, there will be negative consequences including job cuts, potential closure(s) of businesses and recycling of content. We may see rapidly emerging news deserts in regions.”

“Editorial cuts are just the tip of an iceberg of threatened disruptions in New Zealand, with regional and local news outlets set to be reshaped in the near future.”

Although declining the merger is helpful in maintaining a certain level of media diversity, the problem is that nonetheless, the rejection is still set to lead to massive journalism job cuts in New Zealand. Moreover, neither declining or approving it would solve the challenges of legacy media being unable to keep up with disruptions to advertising and distribution models for the news. By contrast, making a decision – any decision – right now, has meant that as a nation we are once again having to come face-to-face with these ongoing existential and operational questions about the future of journalism. How to fund our news media, and quality journalism in a digital age is no longer a complicated question that is out of the public’s sight.

If the merger isn’t going ahead, and our biggest media organisations are threatening to continue gutting newsrooms around the country, then how do we – for want of a better phrase – try and fix our media through other means? Unlike a positive ruling would have provided, the current outcome leaves no certain or stable path forward for news media in New Zealand. It’s almost a case of better the devil you know.

Apart from the combine and conquer approach, there have been relatively few suggestions from legacy media as to a plan b for how to reinvent mainstream news in light of ongoing challenges. While NZME has indicated a suite of advancements it is making, the very fact it wanted to merge in the first place suggests that these alone wouldn’t be enough to secure their future. “A merger was always an unimaginative and short-sighted solution to the problems facing the newspaper groups,” wrote former New Zealand Herald editor and media academic Gavin Ellis this morning, who says the result is a gloomy outlook, despite what side of the merger you’re on. In order to save the $40 million to $200 million the companies say they need to be viable in the digital environment, Ellis also forecasts massive job losses and reduced news cycles for some regions.

In many ways, this is nothing new. It’s already a death by a thousand cuts situation for the country’s mainstream news media and editorial jobs have continuously been being skimmed across the sector for some years now. The threat of more cuts in light of the decision is, somewhat ironically, what actual business as usual looks like. And so, not only is moving forward a gloomy task in terms of job cuts, but the biggest challenge to moving forward is also the elephant in the room.

In terms of media concentration, New Zealand has been maxing out its stats for some time now and that’s not even the biggest elephant. The country is already more concentrated in terms of ownership than the USA, the country that the liberal media model we share was founded on. There is more regulation and less ability for companies to own such vast chunks of media in the US, than in New Zealand. Even before this ruling, mainstream journalism has faced multiple challenges that stem from its lack of competition and diversity.

A proposed merger by two financialised, shareholder-driven companies was never going to be an ‘innovative’ solution. New Zealand’s media market is already geared towards content as profit, not journalism, and expecting organisations with this focus to reinvent the wheel was always a tall ask. As an industry, it’s easy to situate this ruling as leaving journalism exposed and more vulnerable than ever to those at the top of the heap making decisions on how to slowly bleed journalists out. But it never was going to be these companies that marched in and saved journalism; the cards haven’t been stacked that way since deregulation in 1989.

“A proposed merger by two financialised, shareholder-driven companies was never going to be an ‘innovative’ solution.”

Not surprisingly, it’s one of the new entrants to the media ecosystem that called this. The ruling won’t matter, argued Bernard Hickey as one part of three views on the topic by editors of new news website The Newsroom. “While the leaderships of NZME and Fairfax pursue this groupthink about ad-funded news, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision won’t make much difference to their trajectories for revenues and journalist headcount in the long run,” he wrote. If digital advertising revenue is the problem, then both companies have been slow on developing responses and this is despite trying several approaches. Combining forces to have a bigger website with more space for advertising will not provide an adequate revenue solution, Hickey suggests. The slow bleed out in this sense, is for the companies, not the journalists.

Victoria University academic Dr Peter Thompson, another media commentator in favour of the merger being declined, argues that in light of New Zealand’s media ownership structures, the challenge going forward is a regulatory one. “NZME and Fairfax are important contributors to the news media ecology in New Zealand, and given the Commission’s rulings they cannot be left to wither while Facebook and Google suck them dry,” he said in an opinion piece today. “It is incumbent on the Government to explore ways in which a healthy Fourth Estate can be maintained.” Thompson suggests three courses of action towards this:

1) Review and revise the Commerce Commission to ensure such mergers are difficult to propose in the first place

2) Review New Zealand media’s regulatory framework so that global companies like Google, which control the online audience’s discovery of content, are obliged to contribute to the cost of providing that content and

3) Recognise that independent, non-commercial, publicly-funded media services on all platforms is an importance service for a functioning democracy – and that it should not be just up to the market (or market failures) to provide space for this

I am inclined to agree that the conversation needs to move beyond a Fairfax NZME dichotomy. We can’t rely on organisations whose responsibility is to their shareholders, not New Zealand’s public, to reshape our news media landscape. Yes, regulation is a very important conversation to have as part of that. But just as the digital environment is enabling journalism to take on multiple forms across multiple platforms (some good and some bad), I think the responses to funding its future in New Zealand must also be multiple and multi-pronged. And so I’m with Thompson on his rather utopian suggestion of starting by recognising what is important.

“We can’t rely on organisations whose responsibility is to their shareholders, not New Zealand’s public, to reshape our news media landscape.”

Back to that elephant in the room then: Maybe we’re focussing on the wrong thing. Maybe the way forward isn’t with mainstream media. We know ownership is concentrated and financialised amongst newspaper, television and radio outlets. Part of the current issue then, is that our lens on where quality journalism can flourish is too narrow. These mainstream outlets are just one part of a much wider ecosystem of news and journalism and commentary that we need to be considering when assessing how New Zealander’s get information about what’s important to them. So what if part of that ‘recognition’ process is in rethinking who the media are. Currently, we seem to be putting our collective weight on old media institutions to fix problems that are clearly too complex for these organisations to solve, as they have suggested.

Yes, the New Zealand Herald and Fairfax do produce important journalistic work and I’m not saying we should dismiss this or suggest that the only content produced by these organisations is ‘clickbait’. It’s not. But what about other news services that are emerging in spite of this precarious situation? An easy line of argument is that the country is too small to fund many of the models seen in countries with similar media markets, like the rise of non-profit news outlets in the US. Yet, significant commentary on the topic of this merger alone has emerged from The Newsroom and The Spinoff, two independent news media websites providing a mixture of commentary, analysis and investigation. The latter of which the editor has suggested the Commerce Commision’s decision is flawed and catastrophically wrong.

“Our lens on where quality journalism can flourish is too narrow.”

While not aiming to provide breaking news, the websites are challenging the status quo of what commercial media in New Zealand could be. Both have a strong focus on providing content creation for brands as a funding arm to their journalism and both employ native advertising and ‘sponsored’ sections. The Spinoff goes so far as to explain how it is funded for anyone interested. Producing innovative content in this market isn’t impossible. It’s happening, it’s being nominated for awards, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then there is Press Patron, a new crowdfunding tool that’s been launched across several news media websites in the country, offering readers the chance to voluntarily support the sites they think are important.

All these approaches are small steps and squeezes to an already crowded environment, but important ones that might eventually help burst this bubble of ownership concentration; ones that show alternative responses to legacy media’s failings are possible even in a country with a tiny market. Much of the commentary beyond doom and gloom today is aligned with this thinking. Suggestions are re-emerging that it’s time to consider sensible paywalls for quality content, and murmurs are that perhaps if Fairfax does sell off its rural newspapers then they might end up being independently owned anyway.

It’s not that these examples offer a solution alone, but, along with approaching important issues such as regulation and funding for public service media, they create a more holistic pathway to reimagining and rebuilding quality spaces for journalism in New Zealand. Yes it’s utopian but sometimes – and I argue that sometimes is now – the idealistic has to meet the realistic head on. As the Spinoff’s editor Duncan Greive rammed home in his editorial today – the end for news media as we’ve known it is happening now and this merger decision means it’s coming quicker than we think. It’s time to think on our feet or go home. To a home with no news, because it’s not a given that commercial media will produce news. As I said, the imperative is to serve stakeholders with revenue and whatever shape or form that content takes – news or not – the focus is on revenue, not journalism.

Speaking of innovate, the New York Times has just this week launched its bureau in Australia, promising new and innovative approaches to discussing important issues in Australia and Australia’s place in the world. As part of this strategy, the bureau has a Facebook group for those interested in following the company’s development and feeding into their growth Down Under. On this page, bureau chief Damien Cave today commented on Fairfax’ cuts to Australian newsrooms. “As a lover of journalism, it’s always distressing to see layoffs in our industry,” he said. “I’m not aware of this kind of bold response from journalists in the United States though.” Bold response. Australian Journalists. Since when do Australians enact bold responses and Kiwis don’t? That’s not how our friendly trans-Tasman rivalry is supposed to go. Maybe we need to take a leaf out of our neighbour’s books and get bold. After all, our media system is more liberal than that of Australia and the US, so maybe we just need to roll with that and as well as being more liberal, be more bold with our responses to figuring a way out of this doom and gloom.

*This post originally appeared on May 3, 2017 at www.hannahspyksma.com.

Hannah Spyksma is a freelance journalist from Northland, New Zealand currently completing a PhD in journalism in Brisbane, Australia. She is also a Mundus Journalsim alumni. Read more by Hannah.