New Stuff/NZME merger proposal includes offer of editorial 'ringfence'

Other attempts to sell it having failed, new owners Nine Entertainment are looking to revive plans to merge its Stuff business with New Zealand rival NZME.

Only this time, there is a special new ingredient. Editorial operations could be "ringfenced" in a move similar to conditions imposed on the 1990 privatisation of NZ Telecom.

Nine has been looking for a purchaser of the Kiwi publishing business, formerly Fairfax New Zealand, since acquiring Fairfax last year. While local media companies are understood to have been interested in some of the assets - which include weekly and daily newspapers and their websites as well as the Stuff.co.nz portal and related businesses - GXpress understands none were ready or able to take on the whole NZ operation.

Nine is now resorting to a new attempt to get approval for the merger, with "high-level talks" reported to be underway over government backing. Stuff reported that government sources had confirmed it had been lobbied by NZME. Talks were understood to include proposals for a 'kiwishare' arrangement similar to that used to protect free local calls and fixed phone line rentals when NZ Telecom was privatised in 1990.

"That would answer concerns raised by the Commerce Commission in 2017 when it rejected a merger proposal on the grounds of a loss of a plurality of voices in New Zealand journalism," Stuff says in its report, adding that the kiwishare arrangement was "one of several options being considered, including bypassing the commission or doing nothing".

The moves come in the context of what Stuff calls an "increasingly fractured and distressed" media landscape, as publishers face massive competition from rivals such as Facebook and Google. It quotes Newshub head of news Hal Crawford - who is leaving the Mediaworks operation, which has put its Three TV channel up for sale - saying the current New Zealand media model is broken.

Nine has not commented on the latest proposal, revealed in a statement by NZME to the NZX stock exchange, in which NZME said it was in discussions with Nine and had put a proposal to the government. "However, NZME notes that these discussions are preliminary and stresses that no decision has been made in relation to any potential transaction. There can be no certainty at this stage that these discussions will result in any transaction," the statement said.

A merger would bring New Zealand's biggest newspapers - the New Zealand Herald, the Dominion Post (Wellington) and The Press (Christchurch) under the same ownership, along with radio stations including Newstalk ZB and Radio Hauraki. Both publishers own numerous regional and local newspapers.

Stuff claims New Zealand's biggest online news audience and one of the biggest digital sites, "comparable with YouTube, Google and Facebook". It is also owns the Neighbourly private social network and ISP Stuff Fibre, and partnered power reseller energyclubnz... activities which have helped make Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher a poster girl for media diversification. A speaker at industry conferences on several occasions, Boucher was a delegate at WAN-Ifra's Digital Media Asia conference in Hong Kong last month - earning recognition from Google news vice president Richard Gingras - but did not speak.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: How Stuff reported the news

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