Starter’s gun goes off on new phase of media concentration as Nine-Fairfax lead the way


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

The Nine-Fairfax Media deal, billed as the biggest shakeup in the Australian media landscape for decades, was widely anticipated once the Turnbull government repealed the main anti-concentration laws in 2017. It may well result in the loss of a highly respected independent quality media voice. It has certainly fired the starting gun on a new phase of media concentration.

It’s the latest and arguably the most dramatic episode in the media concentration saga in Australia. This is already among the most concentrated media markets in the world, behind countries like China and Egypt. These developments signal that media diversity policies need a major overhaul to take account of the impact of the media-tech platform giants on traditional news media businesses.




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FactCheck: is Australia’s level of media ownership concentration one of the highest in the world?


In many ways this by now widely telegraphed process of media convergence has been the strategy of two of Australia’s largest legacy media companies to survive a bit longer against the onslaught of the Silicon Valley FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) behemoths. If approved it will create Australia’s largest media company – and presumably the loudest private media voice with the most political clout in the country.

Former prime minister Paul Keating notes that this could have been predicted from the first implementation of cross-media rules back in the late 1980s. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield says he’s “ownership agnostic” – if we can just park the fact that it was the government’s horse-trading efforts directed towards crossbench senators that led to precisely this outcome. And the Coalition and its supporters would welcome regulatory approval of the deal by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Many believe that subsuming Fairfax Media will assist in muzzling the edgier, more critical journalism in the group’s mastheads and generally advance an editorial position that is favourable to the government. After all, former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello chairs the Nine board. In the lead-up to a federal election in 2019, the timing could not be better for the conservatives.




Read more:
A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media


Clock’s ticking for local news

The deal, if it goes forward, has also fired the starting gun on a process of further dismantling media in the bush. As print media audiences are reaching their expiry dates, we can expect to see the loss of important local newspapers such as the Newcastle Herald and the Launceston Examiner.

Newspapers like these play a key civic journalism role in those communities. They have, for example, pressured governments to set up royal commissions such as the inquiry into institutional responses to sexual abuse.

So local, regional and suburban journalism will be among the losers in this convergence of media platforms. Even major metro titles like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are under a cloud as Fairfax’s more profitable digital media assets, such as the Domain real estate site and streaming service Stan, have become the focus of the business.

While some sector-specific ownership and control rules remain in place, these are limited in number and scope. They apply only to legacy media of commercial television, commercial radio and associated (print) newspapers. The rules would not affect the combined reach of Nine News and Fairfax’s well-recognised online news brand.




Read more:
Media reform deals will reduce diversity and amount to little more than window dressing


Who’s left to defend diversity?

So will the ACCC’s inquiry come up with any public interest regulatory antidotes? Its digital platforms inquiry does extend to investigating certain aspects of pluralism or media diversity. This was one of several outcomes of the legislative and policy changes of 2017, which included the repeal of cross-media ownership laws.

However, such a decision by the ACCC would be surprising. That’s because effective media pluralism policy that is capable of addressing these kind of integrated cross-platform deals requires bipartisan support at the highest political levels. That’s not something that tends to happen much in Australian media policy.

Yet the ACCC review and the possibility of regulatory intervention using competition law is the only alternative policy lever available to regulate the adverse consequences of cross-media concentration.

The ACCC inquiry is focusing mainly on market power in relation to advertising on digital platforms. But it is also examining the role of search engines, aggregators and social media platforms and their implications for the production, delivery and consumption of sustainable quality news online.

An issues paper noted that the inquiry would consider “the impact of algorithmic selection on the plurality of news and journalistic content presented to Australian consumers”. Recommendations about the implications of automated news delivery will be critical.

But this new baked-in logic of an automated public sphere is very different to the voice concentration that has arisen out of the calculated deregulation of cross-media laws. As US legal scholar Frank Pasquale argues:

New methods of monitoring and regulation should be as technologically sophisticated and comprehensive as the automated public sphere they target.

Although it is still early days, the regulator is unlikely to stand in the way of media businesses whose rhetoric is all about “scale” and “survival”. In other words, media voice concentration is recast as a second-order issue compared to the survival of these traditional Australian media corporations.

The ConversationPerhaps that survival duration should be measured in election cycles? Even better, why not look at laws and policies to ensure that the instruments of media policymaking maintain media ownership, pluralism and diversity objectives?

Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Nine-Fairfax merger rings warning bells for investigative journalism – and Australian democracy



File 20180730 106499 f6gpf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont is one of Australia’s leading investigative journalists. Under the Fairfax-Nine merger, how well will work like hers be supported?
AAP/Dean Lewins

Andrea Carson, University of Melbourne

If you value the media’s watchdog role in democracy, then the opening words in the deal enabling Channel Nine to acquire Fairfax Media, the biggest single shake-up of the Australian media in more than 30 years, ring alarm bells.

The opening gambit is an appeal to advertisers, not readers. It promises to enhance “brand” and “scale” and to deliver “data solutions” combined with “premium content”. Exciting stuff for a media business in the digital age. But for a news organisation what is missing are key words like “news”, “journalism” and “public interest”.

Those behind the deal, its political architects who scrapped the cross-media ownership laws last year, and its corporate men, Fairfax’s and Nine’s CEOs, proffer a commercial rather than public interest argument for the merger. They contend that for two legacy media companies to survive into the 21st century, this acquisition is vital.




Read more:
A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media


Perhaps so. But Australia’s democratic health relies on more than a A$4 billion media merger that delivers video streaming services like Stan, a lucrative real estate advertising website like Domain, and a high-rating television program like Love Island.

The news media isn’t just any business. It does more than entertain us and sell us things. Through its journalism, it provides important public interest functions.

Ideally, news should accurately inform Australians. A healthy democracy is predicated on the widest possible participation of an informed citizenry. According to liberal democratic theorists, the news media facilitate informed participation by offering a diverse range of views so that we can make considered choices, especially during election campaigns when we decide who will govern us.

Journalists have other roles too, providing a check on the power of governments and the excesses of the market, to expose abuses that hurt ordinary Australians.

This watchdog role is why I am concerned about Nine merging with Fairfax. To be clear, until last week, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of investigative journalism in Australia.




Read more:
Investigative reporting thrives amid doom and gloom for broadsheets


Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Newcastle Herald and the Financial Review have a strong record of using their commercial activities to subsidise expensive investigative journalism to strengthen democratic accountability by exposing wrongdoing. Channel Nine does not.

Since the formation of The Age’s Insight team in 1967, Fairfax investigations have had many important public outcomes after exposing transgressions including: judicial inquiries, criminal charges, high-profile political and bureaucratic sackings, and law reforms. Recent examples include the dogged work of Fairfax and ABC journalists to expose systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, leading to a royal commission and National Redress Scheme for victims. Another was the exposure of dodgy lending practices that cost thousands of Australians their life savings and homes, which also triggered a royal commission.

The problem with Nine’s proposed takeover of Fairfax (if it goes ahead) is that it is unlikely to be “business as usual” for investigative journalism in the new Nine entity. First, there is a cultural misalignment and, with Nine in charge, theirs is likely to dominate.

With notable exceptions such as some 60 Minutes reporting, Nine is better known for its foot-in-the-door muckraking and chequebook journalism than its investigative journalism. In comparison, seven decades of award-winning investigative journalism data reveal Fairfax mastheads have produced more Walkley award-winning watchdog reporting than any other commercial outlet.

Second, even as the financial fortunes of Fairfax have waned in the digital age, it has maintained its award-winning investigative journalism through clever adaptations including cross-media collaborations, mainly with the ABC. This has worked well for both outlets, sharing costs and increasing a story’s reach and impact across print, radio, online and television.

How will this partnership be regarded when Fairfax is Nine’s newlywed? Will the ABC be able to go it alone with the same degree of investigative reporting in light of its successive federal government budget cuts?




Read more:
Australian media at a crossroads amid threats to diversity and survival


Third, my latest research (see graph) has shown that in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, investigative stories and their targets have changed this decade to accommodate newsroom cost-cutting.

Investigative story targets in three countries: 2007-2016; n=100.
Andrea Carson/Journalism Studies

Investigations are more likely to focus on stories that are cheaper and easier to pursue. This means some areas such as local politics and industrial relations have fallen off the investigative journalist’s radar. Here and abroad, this reflects cost-cutting and a loss of specialist reporters.

Echoing this, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson, warned:

There are so many important junctures in life where there is no journalistic surveillance going on. There are too many journalistic communities in the United States now where the newspaper doesn’t have the reporter to cover the city council, the school committee, the mayor’s office … we have about half the number of reporters that we had in the late 1990s. You can’t possibly contend that you are doing the same level or depth of reporting. Too much stuff is just slipping through too many cracks.

Of concern, Australian award-winning investigations already cover a smaller breadth of topics compared to larger international media markets. The merger of Fairfax mastheads with Channel Nine further consolidates Australia’s newsrooms. If investigative journalism continues, story targets are likely to be narrow.

Finally, investigative journalism is expensive. It requires time, resources and, because it challenges power, an institutional commitment to fight hefty lawsuits. Fairfax has a history of defending its investigative reporters in the courts, at great expense.

The ConversationWill Nine show the same commitment to defending its newly adopted watchdog reporters using earnings from its focus on “brand”, “scale” and “data solutions”? For the sake of democratic accountability, I hope so.

Andrea Carson, Incoming Associate Professor at LaTrobe University. Former Lecturer, Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences; Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

#NineFairfax deal end of an era for Australia’s media titans


Bridget Griffen-Foley, Macquarie University

Competition and co-operation. The former may seem an obvious aspect of the Australian media landscape, but it has always gone hand-in-hand with pragmatic co-operation.

Since the 1920s, the Packer and Murdoch media companies have been entwined with the oldest of Australia’s “old media” firms, Fairfax Media, which has its origins in the 1841 endeavours of printer and journalist John Fairfax.

When a young Frank Packer and his business partner, former Queensland Labor Premier and federal Treasurer E.G. Theodore , re-launched the Sydney Telegraph as the Daily Telegraph in 1936, the Dickensian Sydney Morning Herald responded by hiring new editorial staff, using more pictures, encouraging tighter writing, and improving its coverage of horse racing.




Read more:
Paul Keating unleashes vitriolic attack on Nine’s takeover of Fairfax


For decades the two newspapers – The Telegraph a tabloid from 1942, and the Herald with (finally) news on its front page from 1944 – vied for scoops.

But while there was genuine competition for news supremacy, the Telegraph repeatedly tried and failed to break the Fairfax company’s stranglehold on classified advertising, the famous “rivers of gold” that fuelled the Herald until that great disrupter, the internet.

Even if the Fairfaxes, and Sir Keith Murdoch in Melbourne, failed to regard the pugnacious Packer as a gentleman, there was a kind of gentlemanly code of honour, and understanding, between the knights of the Australian media.

When Christmas choristers performed “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” outside his Bellevue Hill mansion, Sir Frank offered them money to go down the road and perform “Hark! The Telegraph Angels Sing” outside Sir Warwick Fairfax’s residence.

Early competition between the three groups focused on daily and Sunday newspapers, and magazines, but their expanding media interests also led to co-operative agreements.

Before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’s 1958 hearings for applications for television licences in Brisbane and Adelaide, the main Sydney and Melbourne television proprietors – Packer, “Rags” Henderson from Fairfax, and Sir John Williams from the Herald and Weekly Times – met at Fairfax headquarters to “carve up the empire”. They agreed to combine their interests to ensure an equitable program-sharing arrangement if there should only be one licence awarded in each city.

In 1960 Murdoch’s only son, Rupert, entered Sydney by the back door by buying the suburban newspaper chain Cumberland Newspapers for £1 million. Vowing not to let this invasion go unchallenged, Fairfax and Packer contributed equal capital to form a new joint company, Suburban Publications.

Vigorous, at times farcical, competition between the two companies did not last; as Fairfax historian Gavin Souter noted, “war was being waged in the suburbs, but it was limited war”.

In 1961 Cumberland Newspapers and Suburban Publications concluded a non-compete agreement that would not have been permitted under the Trade Practices Act that became law in 1974.

By the 1960s the press tentacles of Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch had stretched into radio, television and newsprint, if with different emphases.

Fairfax Media was a titan, not just in Sydney, as it launched the Australian Financial Review nationally in 1951, purchased the Canberra Times in 1964, and secured a major interest in The Age in 1966. It also controlled the powerful Macquarie radio network (headed by 2GB) and ATN7 (Sydney’s Channel Seven). Fairfax figures appeared on Channel Seven current affairs programs, while TCN9 and GTV9 in Melbourne were known as the Packer/Telegraph stations.

In 1972 Sir Frank finally acceded to the pressure of his sons, Clyde and Kerry, to sell the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited now had the “economies of scale” that came with publishing an afternoon newspaper (the Daily Mirror) as well as a morning newspaper.

In 1990, young Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous bid to privatise John Fairfax & Sons resulted in the Herald and associated interests being lost to the family.

Kerry’s son, James, chose the timing of his family’s exit from the media, selling off Australian Consolidated Press and Channel Nine to private equity between 2006 and 2012.




Read more:
A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media


Now, following last year’s changes to media control and diversity rules, Nine and Fairfax Media have “merged”. It seems more like a takeover, with 51.1% of equity to be held by Nine. The CEO, Hugh Marks and chair of the board, another former Treasurer, in this case Liberal Peter Costello, will come from Nine. The new company will be known as NEC (Nine Entertainment Co.).

If shareholders and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission approve the transaction, the Fairfax name will be gone from the Australian media.

Two companies, with very different histories and cultures, will be forced to work together in the never-ending search for efficiencies and revenue in a brutal landscape for newspapers, magazines and television.

Frank and Kerry Packer (whose 1990s attempt to gain control of John Fairfax & Sons was stymied) are no doubt dancing a jig in heaven (or in hell), as the television company they founded is on the cusp of gaining control of the press assets they envied. Rupert Murdoch remains Australia’s last media titan.

On this landmark day for the Australian media, I can report one unqualified piece of good news.

After years of uncertainty and negotiations, the Fairfax Media Archive has been acquired and sorted by the State Library of New South Wales. More than 2,100 boxes of priceless material, ranging across the press, radio and television, and the dynasty, companies, outlets and workers, are now accessible to researchers.

While the focus is principally on the period before 1991, the collection will in time presumably document what led to what was quickly dubbed, by social media, the #NineFairfax deal.

The ConversationBridget Griffen-Foley is a Professor of Media at Macquarie University, and the editor of A Companion to the Australian Media. She is keynote speaker at the Fairfax Media Archive Symposium at the State Library of New South Wales on 10 August.

Bridget Griffen-Foley, Director of the Centre for Media History, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paul Keating unleashes vitriolic attack on Nine’s takeover of Fairfax


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Paul Keating, architect of the Hawke government’s cross-media rules, has called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to put the Nine-Fairfax merger under “high scrutiny”, and declared Nine has the “ethics of an alley cat”.

In a scathing statement, Keating said the takeover was “an exceptionally bad development”.

If Nine had a majority of the stock, as announced, it “will run the editorial policy,” he said.

Keating said that for more than half a century, Nine had never done other than display “the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.

“There has been no commanding ethical or moral basis for the conduct of its news and information policy. Through various changes of ownership, no one has lanced the carbuncle at the centre of Nine’s approach to news management. And, as sure as night follows day, that pus will inevitably leak into Fairfax.

“For the country, this is a great pity”.

The government last year liberalised the media law, facilitating more concentration.




Read more:
A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the announcement and said the parties did not expect it to face any regulatory hurdles.

“I think bringing them together will strengthen both of them.” he said. Television, online and print journalism was a “very tough, competitive environment nowadays”.

“The arrival all of the online news services has made the media so much more competitive than it used to be, whether it’s the competition for newspapers or whether it’s the competition in the television area with streaming services like Netflix,” Turnbull said.

“So I think bringing them together enables two strong Australian brands with great, very long traditions to be able to be more secure. So on that basis I welcome it”.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said the government’s “historic media reforms” had “created an environment where Australian media organisations have a wider range of options as to how they combine in order to support their viability to ensure that they survive” in the age of the internet.

But Keating said the media free-for-all the Turnbull government was permitting under its new law would “result in an effective and dramatic close down in diversity and with it, opinion’.

“It is true that the technology has brought myriad voices to a public eager for diversity of information.

“But the atomisation of web-based content, much of it other than local, cannot in terms of impact, be compared with the big local media players, particularly in consolidations of the kind announced today.”

The “takeover of Fairfax by Channel Nine will change the news landscape of Australia altogether.”

Keating said that notwithstanding the disruption caused by international platforms such as Google and Facebook “the answer for Australia is diversity of income streams for Australia’s majors and not a closedown in news and content with major print being taken over by major television”.

Keating has had some major run ins with Fairfax over the years. But he had a different tone towards it on Thursday.

“Fairfax spent decades missing all the signals about the rise of the digital economy when it could have put itself in a position of relative commercial independence.

“That notwithstanding, the current management has, in the circumstances, done a better than reasonable job in creating income sources to allow the company to preserve its editorial independence, especially in print.”

Keating said that if the government really had its way, Australia would face this much closed down landscape without the ABC being an independent national broadcaster.

“On competition grounds and that of the imperative of local diversity, the Competition Commissioner should put this proposal under high scrutiny,” Keating said.

He said that while the web brought increased diversity “the big wholesalers of news and information in Australia have always had the dominant impact. They have been the big dogs on the block. Today’s announcement means that in future, they will operate as a pack.

“The cross-media rule at least split that dominance, giving the community various streams and alternatives within which to think. Today’s announced takeover of Fairfax by Channel Nine brings the big wholesalers back with a vengeance. And with it, were it to be permitted, a major shutting in of diversity”.

Labor’s communications shadows, Michelle Rowland and Stephen Jones said: “Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. This proposed merger means it is about to get even more concentrated.”

The ConversationIt meant public broadcaters, the ABC and SBS, had never been more important, they said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media



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There is a huge question mark over the future editorial quality of the newspapers after the merger.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

All deaths are sudden, even if long expected.

Appropriately enough, this is the opening sentence of a book called Journalism in a Culture of Grief.

And if ever there was a time of grief for journalism in Australia, it is today, with the announcement that Nine Entertainment is taking over Fairfax Media.

It means the death of Fairfax and is the most consequential change in Australian media ownership in 31 years.

It also means that three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review – are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.

Nine’s news bulletins consist largely of police stories with a tincture of politics, and highlights of colourful or violent events overseas.




Read more:
Australian media at a crossroads amid threats to diversity and survival


Its current affairs program, A Current Affair, is a formulaic procession of stories about consumer rorts and personal tragedies.

So there is a huge question mark over the future editorial quality of the newspapers.

A particularly pressing question is: what will happen to The Age’s investigative unit?

It is led by two of the best investigative reporters Australia has produced, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.

In addition to breaking an extraordinary range of major stories on subjects like organised crime and scandals in the banking industry, they have developed a highly successful collaboration with the ABC’s Four Corners team.

It seems very unlikely Nine would allow this collaboration to continue, since it involves a rival television channel.

There is also a question about editorial independence.

Fairfax has a charter of editorial independence, which all owners since 1990 have signed up to. Will Nine sign up to it? Will the charter have any meaning when the newspapers are owned by a company whose chairman, Peter Costello, was treasurer in the Liberal-National Coalition government of former Prime Minister John Howard?

The answers to these questions will not be known for some time. They will depend largely on who is given editorial control of the combined operation. Since the Nine CEO, Hugh Marks, is to be CEO of the combined operation, it seems more likely than not that it will be a Nine executive who calls the editorial shots, too.

The takeover also means a further loss of diversity in an already highly concentrated media-ownership landscape. The big players are now down to four: News Corp, Nine, Seven West Media and the ABC.

And it is almost certain to mean the loss of yet more journalists’ jobs.

Since 2012, more than 3,000 jobs have been lost across Australian journalism. Yet, if the takeover is really going to represent “compelling value” for shareholders, as Fairfax chairman Nick Falloon says, then newsroom “synergies” – to borrow the corporate jargon – are likely to be essential.

The Fairfax company’s death throes have been painful and prolonged.

They began in 1987, when the younger son of Sir Warwick Fairfax, “young Warwick”, privatised it. That meant buying out all the public shareholders, for which purpose “young Warwick” borrowed AU$1.6 billion from the National Australia Bank.

Even with the revenue from the “rivers of gold” then flowing in from the classified ads of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, “young Warwick” could not meet his debts to the bank, which promptly sold him up.

In a highly politicised auction, during which Paul Keating and the then-Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, sought assurances from prospective buyers concerning political outlook, the company fell into the hands of a London-based Canadian, Conrad Black.

There followed a procession of ownership changes, board reshuffles and short-lived chief executives that left the company rudderless and vulnerable.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, when the digital revolution began to engulf the media, a weakened and incompetently managed Fairfax was ill-equipped to respond.

A series of disastrous mistakes by successive boards resulted in Fairfax missing out on opportunities to buy into the new online advertising platforms in cars, jobs and real estate.

Hubris and arrogance led incumbent board members to believe that these markets could not function without the mountains of classified advertisements carried by The Age and Herald on Saturdays.




Read more:
Mixed media: how Australia’s newspapers became locked in a war of left versus right


By 2005, the shift in revenue to online platforms was discernible, and the trend has been accelerating ever since.

As a result, the company was increasingly unable to meet the demands of the share market for profit growth, and so became the object of sustained takeover speculation.

When the federal government changed the laws in September last year to allow once again cross-media ownership between newspapers, radio, television and online, speculation about a merger between Nine and Fairfax grew stronger.

Today that speculation became a reality.

The ConversationThe Fairfax story has all the elements of Greek tragedy: heroism in the creation of the company, then a combination of comedy, pride, stupidity, greed, arrogance and hubris to bring it down.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.