Nine’s takeover of Fairfax spells trouble not just for Australia’s mainstream media — but for startups and independents too.

The biggest proposed merger in Australian media history is setting off alarm bells across the industry.

By James Rose
Splice Australia

The proposed merger between Nine and Fairfax is set to change Australia’s media landscape irrevocably.

But it’s not only the mainstream media that will feel the impact of the biggest merger widely viewed as a takeover in Australian media history. Startups and independent media outlets are also concerned about what the future holds.

Consolidation inevitable

Whether the deal is approved by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the stage is set for greater consolidation of Australia’s already tightly held news media sector.

The Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, the Australian journalists’ union, has condemned the move.

“The ACCC should hit the pause button on this takeover until it has guarantees on editorial independence, the future of regional and rural mastheads and has time to consider the recommendations of its own digital media inquiry,” union representative Marcus Strom said in a statement.

That inquiry was established to examine the impact of online news aggregators such as Facebook on local media, but is believed by some to have missed the opportunity to debate the value of public interest journalism.   

Despite the outcry, it seems there is little to be done. New, more open, media ownership laws brought in last year are unfolding largely as predicted.

Diversity at risk

Crikey associate editor Daniel Wood believes this movement may prompt supporters of serious news to search out more independent journalism.

“I have no doubt people will start to more actively seek out quality content,” he says. “And switched-on, responsive publications will be able to meet at least some of that demand.”

The Guardian Australia has voiced a similar hope that discerning news audiences will support local independents  such as Crikey, New Matilda, The Saturday Paper as well as the local branches of overseas mastheads The Guardian and Buzzfeed.

But independent media outlets are also concerned about the new climate.

“Nine has made it pretty clear that the big-ticket items in this deal are Stan [a Netflix-style entertainment site] and Domain [a real estate portal], which simply aren’t platforms for incisive journalism,” he says.

“So, although the takeover might well generate awareness of quality independent journalism, whether or not it’ll generate access is another question.”

Andrea Carson, a media specialist from the University of Melbourne, is concerned about the future of media diversity in Australia.

“Nine has news programs, but brands itself as the Entertainment Network,” she says. “In this regard, it is a very driven commercial beast that will do what it takes to get ratings. It does not have the history or depth of independent reporting that Fairfax is renowned for.”

Regional pressures

Both worry about the diminution of the formerly vibrant local and regional newspaper sector.

Wood notes that “Fairfax has 160-odd regional and rural newspapers. Even pre-merger the company said a lot of these papers aren’t commercially sustainable.”

“So, we have to assume most, if not all, will get the arse after Nine’s ‘strategic review’. And I’m not sure energy alone will be enough to motivate another news company to pick up the pieces.”

And Carson believes this merger is just the beginning.

“Australian media history tells us that the last major shake-up to media laws in the late 1980s saw 19 daily newspapers become 12,” she says.

“Given that the media laws now facilitate takeovers and mergers, I would expect there to be more.”

James Rose is a journalist, author, and consultant based in Australia. Follow James Rose on Twitter.

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