Adapt, collaborate, or die?

The significance of the proposed merger of two rival New Zealand media giants cannot be underestimated. Australian parent companies Fairfax Media and APN are talking about whether to merge the New Zealand arms of their businesses - NZME and Fairfax NZ - into a major listed media company.

At this stage, the companies are only "in discussions''; there are a various hurdles ahead, including Commerce Commission approval.

Should the merger happen, though, it would be something of a return to "the good old days'' when the country's media shared stories and photographs from their neck of the woods and distributed them through the New Zealand Press Association.

There was still rivalry, of course. Beating others to a story was desirable and sometimes copy was not shared until the last possible moment to prevent others from running one title's "scoop'' the same day or to the same length and depth.

But there was the acknowledgment - in the pre-digital/citizen journalism/social media world - that traditional journalists couldn't be everywhere at all times, that collaborating worked in the interests of the media, who worked in the interest of disseminating information for the public and holding those in power to account.

Now of course, in the digital age, there is the expectation from the public that journalists will be everywhere, at all hours, that news, entertainment and opinion should be accessible at the touch of a screen, on a variety of platforms, online, live and instantaneous.

The mediums have changed. Technology has made news-gathering and presentation exciting, innovative, fast-paced, constantly evolving and challenging. It certainly does not allow for complacency, the enemy of good journalism.

Sadly, what has changed is that today's "audiences'' want and expect everything immediately - and for nothing. If they can't get it for free, they'll go somewhere they can.

But if good journalism is not valued, there is a huge cost - to media companies, and ultimately to the public they serve. The public often bemoan what is perceived as dropping standards of journalism, yet it is fuelling the change.

In a climate where even public broadcasters face severe funding constraints, how can private media companies remain viable? As long as people prefer to click on stories about reality television shows over genuine news and information, it is increasingly hard for experienced journalists to justify their existence to their owners and shareholders and advertisers.

As long as the watchdog role of the fourth estate is undervalued in every sense, the democratic ideals of transparency and accountability are at risk. The ultimate winners of this race to the bottom? Those already at the top, who are striving to stay there: the Government, churches, judiciary, police, army, big business.

As the oldest and only independent metropolitan newspaper in the country, the Otago Daily Times has full sympathy for APN and Fairfax's predicament. Regardless of whether they are our friends or foes, this newspaper does not wish to see the jobs of more good journalists at risk. Collaboration and rivalry are important to keep us honest, energetic and effective.

The country has been very well served with diverse media organisations for a relatively small population. If a merger allows the new major entity to put up a paywall for digital content, it may safeguard its future - and that of others seeking to do the same, such as this newspaper.

We all need to go back to the future to a certain extent: back to valuing journalism and the work that goes into producing content - and back to paying for it (on whatever platform). Now more than ever, in an age of spin doctors, gatekeepers and public relations staff, we need a healthy, competent, independent and well-resourced media.

Our role is as a public watchdog, but the public has a role to play, too. "Us and them'' is an outdated concept. We're all in this together - and have the power to make it better, not worse.

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