Stuff and NZME seek Plan B as appeal court blocks merger

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Assuming its own merger into Nine Entertainment goes ahead, Fairfax Media will have to decide what happens next now the NZ Court of Appeal has ruled out the merger of its Stuff business with NZME.

Further closures within the former Fairfax Media NZ business are now expected following the decision, which group chief executive Greg Hywood said could also lead to deep cuts in journalism.

So far only a public 'minute' has been released, with a full judgment on the appeal - which began in June following NZ Commerce Commission intervention in 2016 - to follow. NZME and Stuff have been ordered to pay the costs of the appeal.

The original proposal would have seen Fairfax sell Stuff into NZME for $55 million cash and a 41 per cent stake in the combined business. Since then Fairfax Media has itself become the subject of a merger into Australia's Nine Entertainment, which is also subject to regulatory approval. Nine's level of commitment to the New Zealand newsmedia market is not yet known as the Australian commercial TV giant assesses its options.

While the publishers argued that the NZ merger was essential to the

ongoing viability of their news businesses, the local campaign against it has focused on the dangers of media concentration. The NZCC had argued the

merger would concentrate "media ownership and influence to an unprecedented extent for a well-established modern liberal democracy", that decision then being taken by the two parties to the High Court and then the Court of Appeal.

In many respects the objections upheld in New Zealand are the same ones which were ignored in the larger Australian market when the ACCC decided it had no objections to the country's last major media merger, that of APN News and Media (which had owned NZME until its spin-off into a separate company) into the much larger News Corp Australia. To a large extent, the future of Stuff will depend on the Australian regulator's attitude to the Nine-Fairfax merger, but in any case an extended period of uncertainty is to be expected.

Stuff - whose chief executive Sinead Boucher was a speaker at the Inform Summit conference in Sydney this month - and NZME are to be congratulated on 'getting on with their knitting' meanwhile.

Boucher told staff in an email today that they had "not been sitting around idly waiting for it". The time had been spent growing its Stuff and Neighbourly platforms and new digital ventures, "complemented by a strong portfolio of newspapers and magazines". Stuff had believed the combined business would "ensure the delivery of high quality independent journalism at scale for all New Zealanders" and that the NZCC's opposition was "wrong in fact and in law".

NZME chief executive Michael Boggs also stressed the work done while the regulatory processes rolled on: NZME had focused on growing audience and engagement, returning advertising revenue to growth and growing new revenue streams including the OneRoof platform and paid digital subscriptions on nzherald.co.nz, he said.

The company believed the merger was "in the best interests of both its shareholders, and the New Zealand media industry as a whole". It will take time to review the full judgment when released, and "consider its options", he said.

What happens now will likely depend on the appetite New Zealand and other outside investors have for the risks implicit in a revalued newsmedia publishing industry.

Peter Coleman

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