Rumbles for Stuff-MediaWorks tie-up growing

Tim Murphy

When the High Court turned down the StuffMe merger of Stuff Ltd and NZME last year, the prospect of MediaWorks stepping into the ring to link with Stuff became a real possibility.

Now, with Stuff’s Australian parent, Fairfax Media, being swallowed by Nine Entertainment, the rumbles for a Stuff-MediaWorks tie-up are growing again.

For corporate engineers, there would be a few initial hurdles to negotiate.

Awaiting approvals

First, the StuffMe partners have taken their proposed merger to the Court of Appeal, had their day in court and are awaiting their Honours’ considered judgment – expected toward the end of the year.

Second, the Nine merger with Fairfax also awaits approval – from the Australian competition regulator, the ACCC, which has set down three months for its initial consideration, and from the companies’ shareholders.

Third, the merged Nine entity would be left with either its Stuff subsidiary (if the Court of Appeal denies the New Zealand merger) or a large shareholding in an approved StuffMe merged company.  If the latter, it would be impossible for that big media beast to be allowed to merge again with MediaWorks with its TV reach, Newshubdigital site and the other half of the commercial radio market that NZME does not already own.

The fate of Stuff Limited

But if Fairfax Media was to direct Stuff to withdraw in advance of a Court of Appeal decision (possible but preposterous) or that court was to block the StuffMe merger, then a Nine-Fairfax combo would be left seeking an option for what to do with Stuff Ltd.

This column raised the question over Stuff’s fate in the big Australian corporate power play. Since then, media business theorists have offered the view the new Nine would be open to selling or merging Stuff with MediaWorks, which is owned by the US debt giant, Oaktree Capital, which owns shares in Nine until last year and thus knows both Trans-Tasman broadcasters well.

Managers’ advantage

MediaWorks’ board is chaired by Jack Matthews, a former Senior Executive of Fairfax Media and the MediaWorks Chief Executive Michael Anderson was a Former Fairfax Director. They have the advantage of knowing the Fairfax and Stuff businesses well.

Both New Zealand media businesses need a partner.

Stuff has made that clear in its dogged pursuit of the NZME deal. Stuff has the country’s biggest news website and audience but a collection of newspapers and small new ventures with no broadcasting arm.

MediaWorks has spoken of the existential risks it faces in a broadcasting policy environment in which the Labour-led government is bulking up RNZ and funding for NZ on Air, while leaving TVNZ to prowl the commercial markets.

A StuffWorks combo would have scale – with the Stuff website, the second-tier Newshub site, TV Three, MediaWorks’ music radio revenue machine and the Stuff newspaper chain.

Integrated sales and journalism arms could aspire to achieve the same gains as Nine and Fairfax hope to see in Australia.

Plurality of sources

StuffWorks would also face the concerns over plurality of news sources and diversity of voices that have bedevilled the StuffMe bid – but it would not have anywhere the same dominance online, would not double-up in newspaper markets and might arguably bolster the chances of competition in the talk radio market.

The drums that have been beating for Newshub’s Lisa Owen to be the next host of Checkpoint on RNZ when John Campbell exits peaked recently with reporting that she is likely to win the appointment.

Owen, host of Newshub Nation on Three on weekend mornings and co-host with Ryan Bridge of RadioLive’s drivetime show, was an obvious contender for the Checkpoint job from the start. Her profile, standing as a political interviewer and reporting pedigree went before her.

The Radio Stuff

RNZ would not comment to Stuff on the selection process.

MediaWorks would be keen to retain Owen as it strives to shake up the low-rating RadioLive in a talk radio market in which the lion’s share of advertising revenues fall almost by default to market leader Newstalk ZB. The pairing with Bridge is still in its infancy and the network would likely regret what-might-have-been should she depart.

RNZ has indicated that Checkpoint would remain hosted from Auckland and as a televised show on digital and free-view channels. Owen could be a seamless choice into such a dual-hosting role. Her hard-pressing and matter-of-fact questioning style could take Checkpoint back to the take-no-prisoners tone set by former host Mary Wilson.

Campbell is set to leave RNZ next month for a presenting and reporting role at TVNZ.

His Executive Producer on both Campbell Live at TV Three and Checkpoint, Pip Keane is  remaining and her relationship with Owen would be critical if the appointment goes ahead.

Tim Murphy is Co-Editor and Co-Founder of Newsroom. He writes about politics, foreign affairs, Auckland, and Media. The above article, which appeared under the new column Media Room appeared on August 13, 2018, has been reproduced by Indian Newslink under a Special Arrangement.


Photo Caption:

Stuff Limited Stable of Newspapers (Picture Courtesy: RNZ)

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