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New Zealand media merger risks growth of 'glib, click-bait' coverage, say editors

The Guardian The Guardian 26/11/2016 Eleanor Ainge Roy
The merger plan by New Zealand’s two main newspaper groups, Fairfax Media and NZME, has split former and current editors.© AP The merger plan by New Zealand’s two main newspaper groups, Fairfax Media and NZME, has split former and current editors. A group distinguished former newspaper editors has launched a scathing attack on plans for New Zealand’s largest print media companies to merge, calling it a threat to democracy which could see a concentration of power exceeded “only in China”.

The merger of NZME and Fairfax Media, which was proposed in May, would not be healthy in a country that “already suffers from a dearth of serious content and analysis”, the editors say in a submission to the commerce commssion.

The group, which includes Suzanne Chetwin, former Dominion chief Richard Long and ex-New Zealand Herald editor Gavin Ellis, also criticise the trend towards “click-bait stories” at a time when television has “all but abandoned current affairs and our public discourse is increasingly glib”.

“The merger would see one organisation controlling nearly 90% of the country’s print media market (and associated websites), the greatest level of concentration in the OECD and one that is exceeded only by China.

“That cannot be healthy, particularly in a society like New Zealand’s that has so few checks and balances in its constitutional arrangements.”

The submission went on to state the greatest threat to New Zealand media came from off-shore publishers who had “no feel for New Zealand’s social fabric”, and urged the commerce commission to decline the merger.

The merger was sold as an attempt by both companies to stem revenue losses and drastic staff and budget cuts, particularly to rural and regional newsrooms.

Dunedin’s The Otago Daily Times would be the only newspaper in the country to remain independent, although it too could be affected as they have content sharing agreements with NZME’s The New Zealand Herald.

Radio stations and magazines owned by both companies would also be affected.

A draft ruling by the commerce commission released in October said it was against the merger, citing concerns for decreased competition in the media industry and little added value to the public.

The commission will make its final ruling in March next year.

However 30 current editors of NZME and Fairfax newspapers in New Zealand have challenged the commission to reconsider its draft decision, saying they have “misinterpreted the state of New Zealand journalism”, and the merging of the two companies would still face healthy competition from a swathe of traditional and alternative media outlets including Radio NZ, TVNZ, Associated Press and the Spinoff website.

“It is unprecedented for a group of editors to write such a letter. It is not unusual for editors to take a stand. We do all the time on behalf of the communities we serve, but rarely, if ever, on our own behalf.”

“Without change, the level of change a merger will bring, many jobs will inevitably be lost.

“We believe - no, we know - that the rapid dismantling of local newsrooms and journalism at scale in this country is inevitable if this merger does not proceed.

Perhaps, most distressingly, we believed that the merger offered a chance at a New Zealand solution.”

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