The future of journalism

Where to from here? That is the obvious question in response to the Commerce Commission's decision on the proposed Fairfax NZME merger, whichever way it went. But while speculation proliferates, this question is impossible to answer fully.

Without doubt the internet revolution is transforming journalism as it has so much else. It has thrown up issues with which media owners everywhere are struggling. Partial answers for particular circumstances have emerged.

A few specialist publications have been able to move behind paywalls and generate sufficient income to fund strong journalism. Others have generated voluntary income from readers.

Generally, however, the promise of sufficient digital income has been a mirage. The behemoths, Facebook and Google, have gobbled the advertising lunch - even though they do not produce the content.

Meanwhile, newspapers continue to generate most income for Fairfax and NZME, despite Fairfax's best efforts to undermine them. It is they which fundamentally bankroll the websites. Fairfax, with the one-way vision of a religious zealot, banked on its digital transformation.

With that failing to create anything like sufficient income, it sought the merger to give it more time (''extend the runway'' as it put it), to find, somehow, commercial answers ahead. What a shame it had been blowing up its own runway by talking down print and diminishing its resources. Buying a little more time would not solve underlying issues or fix its revenue crisis.

But it would, as the Commerce Commission said in its merger rejection yesterday, substantially lessen competition in advertising and reader markets. The merged entity would include 90% of daily newspaper circulation and the majority of traffic for online news.

Including radio stations, it would have a monthly reach to 3.7 million New Zealanders. ''The merger would concentrate media ownership and influence to an unprecedented extent for a well-established modern liberal democracy,'' the commission said.

Fairfax and/or NZME have 20 days to appeal. The costs would be high, the outcome uncertain and another year could easily pass. Fairfax, owned from Australia, could well try to get out and sell what it can. NZME is now a New Zealand public company and its management will have to be focused on innovation and collaboration.

The still-important place for newspapers should not be ignored. After all, physical books have made a comeback against digital titles. Are newspapers next? They, as evidenced in Otago, retain broad reach in a fragmented media world. Print still also stands out as providing exposure to passive buyers not necessarily hunting out specific products, like, say, houses, at a particular time.

Fairfax, NZME and Allied Press already share to varying degrees printing and distribution. This could grow and spread to other parts of the businesses, while retaining the news collaboration and rivalry which keeps everyone honest, energetic and effective.

NZME recently sold the Wairarapa Times Age to Masterton interests. The media groups might do more of this, as local management and ownership are closer to their communities and their needs.

Wider changes are required and ideas are emerging. Is there some way Facebook and Google can at least pay basic company and GST taxes? Is there a way they can be levied for the content they use? Readers will also need to value content and be willing to pay for it. They will need to recognise the role public interest journalism covering the likes of councils and government institutions plays in our democracy, how important it is to give voice to communities and citizens and their interests.

Inevitably, while looking to the merger, Fairfax and NZME have not been as focused as they might on other options. Hopefully, they can turn their full attention to finding answers to the future of their businesses and of journalism.



We need freedom of speech. Less reporters etc, less free speech.