Whose news? Media mergers and commercial reality


Earlier this week, NZME and Stuff announced they would be appealing the December 2017 High Court decision to uphold the May 2017 Commerce Commission decision that they shouldn’t be allowed to merge as one giant media business. Jeepers, that’s a mouthful. What does it all mean?

Is this a story of a White Knight, Government organisation saving New Zealand from corporate greed while ensuring the future of the fourth estate? Or is it a story of commercial media organisations understanding the market and doing the right the thing for the future of local storytelling? It’s both.

But it’s more than that. It’s a complex legal wrangle over perceived competition and media plurality in a world that’s changing faster than the law can keep up. And it’s relevant to all of us, every day. Here’s why.

We construct our reality through news.

Back at university I studied media from the perspective of social construction. One of my favourite papers, News Media Processes, outlined ten news values that are summed up by the old newsroom cliché: ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ News doesn’t just happen, it’s crafted and constructed to tell stories that people will be interested in. Why? Because that’s what sells papers. People like to read about people like themselves – and they love to hear opinions from people who think like they do. That’s why we have an NBR. It’s also why carefully curated news vehicles are so commercially interesting to advertisers.

The news has never been free.

Reading the news is such a big part of everyone’s lives that we forget it’s commercial proposition. Always has been. From the earliest Italian ‘Gazettes’, our news has been beset with corporate bias. Before you ‘consume’ news you should always ask ‘who owns the news?’ – and, just quietly, for the last four hundred years the answer to that question is: rich, white men. And even as newsprint, turned into airwaves turned into clicks and swipes and interactive speakers, that’s never really changed.

Meanwhile, ‘freedom of the press’ is a fundamental pillar of modern democratic societies. To make informed decisions about our future we need to understand the world we live in. That’s why ‘media plurality’ (having lots of different voices in the market) is one of the things the Commerce Commission is focussed on. But it’s essentially myth – overtly or otherwise, news echoes the voice of its owners.

More importantly, the internet has made it a moot point. Today’s news is more ‘media plural’ than ever before. Anyone can tweet (even an orange idiot) but infinite media voices don’t bring us better democracy, they’ve brought us ‘Fake News’, the rise of personality politics and an internet full of unfiltered hate speech. It’s a strange new world.

Something’s got to give. But what?

Built on a platform of freedom, the internet has very quickly concentrated its power into three or four giant companies. It obliterated business models on the way. The world’s biggest taxi-company is unprofitable. The world’s biggest hotel chain is unregulated. And the world’s news organisations can’t compete with the hundreds of platforms and billions of messages competing for our attention. Things will continue to change because they have to - and because they always have. But what news will look like is anyone’s guess.

So what about the merger? Is it right or wrong?

Nobody seems to know. The Commerce Commission would argue that the merger would result in fewer journalists and that would be bad for New Zealand. Hard to disagree with that, but who pays for them? NZME and Stuff argue that media competition isn’t local, it’s global. Hard to disagree with that. But what does will it mean for New Zealand news?

I reckon we’ll be okay. People like to read stories about themselves. And new models are emerging. Newsroom broke two of the biggest stories last year. Spinoff grows from strength to strength. And NBR is still the best place I’ve found to watch rich white guys fight with each other about how to make more money. And because I think news has value, I’ve paid to read all of the above.

As for NZME and Stuff, they’ll duke out the answers in the High Court and chances are no one will be happy. But I reckon Duncan Grieve put it best when he stated that “news is a privilege, not a right”. It’s all very well for the Commerce Commission to fight for media plurality, but who’s going to pay for it?

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe