SYDNEY – Journalists at the 160 regional newspapers owned by Fairfax Media in Australia say they are not sure what the future holds after the company’s $4bn takeover by Nine.
The two media companies announced the shock merger on Thursday. Nine claimed the deal will create Australia’s largest integrated media player, but warned it would “review the scope and breadth” of the new business and forecast about $50m in cuts.
It has prompted fears Fairfax mastheads such as the Canberra Times, Illawarra Mercury and Newcastle Herald would be offloaded.
In a call with investors on Thursday, Nine’s chief executive, Hugh Marks – who will run the merged business – said the regional papers would do better “in some other environment”.
In a phone hookup with regional Fairfax staff the outgoing chief executive, Greg Hywood, said the new business was “looking at options” for the regional stable.
“Whenever businesses merge, there’s a review of assets,” Hywood said. “We’ve looked at the future of the regional assets.
“It’s a tough business and, you know, we’ve been pretty explicit that we’re looking at options. It’s really well managed at the moment; the regional business throws off a lot of cash.”
The Newcastle Herald’s senior investigative journalist, Joanne McCarthy, who won the Gold Walkley in 2013 for her reporting on child sex abuse in the Catholic church, questioned whether that kind of reporting would be valued at Nine, particularly from regional mastheads.
“The Newcastle Herald in particular has a history of of identifying global issues – institutional child sex abuse, firefighting foam contamination and pelvic mesh – from the ground up and developing them with the support of the broader Fairfax network.
“Those are public interest issues that don’t sell newspapers, don’t tend to rate well on social media, take considerable resources and exact a toll on journalists and editors.
“Whether that kind of journalism at a regional level will be valued under this new landscape is simply unknown.”
Although Nine might look to sell the papers, there’s no guarantee there will be a buyer. News Corp has been looking for buyers for its regional stable and independent publishers have sometimes found it hard to survive in smaller regional markets.
The difficulty of operating a regional newspaper was writ large in Newcastle last year when an independent publisher opened a new weekly publication to great fanfare – poaching one of the Herald’s most senior reporters and hiring a host of ex-staff from the paper – only to fold after 11 issues.
“There’s certainly no impediments to the regional part of the business being hived off and sold to News or other players in the market [but] the market is really tough for newspapers,” said Paul Scott, a media academic at the University of Newcastle.
“I don’t necessarily think the market is tough for news, but getting them to pay for it is another thing.”
The prospect of the publications being sold or closed has prompted fears about media diversity in regional areas. In Newcastle the Herald’s two main competitors are the ABC and the commercial television network NBN, already owned by Nine.
“Let’s make no mistake about it: the regional paper still sets the agenda in most places,” Scott said.
“Not to be disrespectful to NBN but it’s an oily rag operation and it’s still heavily reliant on what the Newcastle Herald sets as the agenda. Then you have commercial radio news which is completely reliant on the Herald.”
Ian Kirkwood, a reporter at the Newcastle Herald for 31 years and a Walkley winner with McCarthy in 2013, was “taken by surprise” by the announcement.
“But the Newcastle Herald has been through waves of cost-cutting in the last couple of years and seen a lot of job losses,” he said. “So it’s not something completely out of the blue. We’ve had a lot of practice at receiving announcements like this.”
Although he would be sad to see the Fairfax name go, “the Newcastle Herald hasn’t always been owned by Fairfax”.
Another reporter put it more bluntly: “Any loyalty to Fairfax went out the fucking door years ago. We’re loyal to our masthead.”