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Media firms touch, pause, engage

Media giants Stuff and NZME take their case for a merger to the Court of Appeal next month - but are already looking at cooperating to save money.

The latest target is their sports journalism.

The companies' editorial chiefs met last week in Wellington, a gathering they described as 'not uncommon' and 'regular'.

Newsroom has been told one area of common interest was how the two publishers cover sports - leading to speculation from within their ranks that a shared sports reporting body could provide news to the companies' newspapers and sites.

Both Stuff's editor in chief Mark Stevens and NZME's managing editor Shayne Currie denied that would involve putting the two existing sports departments together - a kind of StuffMe Sport mini-merger.

However one insider said that still leaves open the creation of a new entity to produce sports journalism alongside potentially smaller and more focused Stuff and NZME teams.

Currie praised his own sports journalists, emphasising their high-end work at a time nzherald.co.nz looks to put premium content behind a paywall, charging readers to access stories. "We believe in our own team producing high quality, unique journalism and commentary." 

Leading the Herald's sports team is the NZME head of sport Mike van Niekerk, a former consultant to the company on editorial integration who helped put the publishing and radio arms together in 2015/16. He would have been known to some in Stuff, having worked for its parent Fairfax Australia's digital operations.

The ongoing industry pressures are obvious. Stuff and NZME talked up the risks to their businesses, and need to join forces in their application to merge.

As fewer people pay for print newspapers and advertisers move their spending from print elsewhere, revenues have fallen and the publishing businesses have worked hard to find new income and to drive down their costs. 

For example Stuff made about a dozen regional sports reporters - covering local competitions and players in places like Timaru and Taranaki - redundant at the end of last year. It has also closed 10 of 28 community papers it put on the block, with further sell-or-die decisions imminent.

The industry would be remiss not to look for cost savings covering so-called commodity news - factual reports which could be handled by one journalist for common use, with the costs being shared. Stock standard sports reports fit that bill.

Back to the Future

One way of approaching that would be to establish a sports news agency, something like the former NZ Press Association, which was closed in 2011 when Stuff's predecessor wanted out of the industry cooperative. 

Under such a model, publishers could set-up a third party newsroom and then outsource routine sports coverage to eliminate many tasks currently performed separately within both big newsrooms.

These could include everything from Shaun Johnson's engagement to Kayla Cullen through to team namings, injury updates, immediate match reports, live scoring of events, previews and reviews of performances and individuals. 

Prominent 'name' sports commentators and writers like Dylan Cleaver, Chris Rattue, Liam Napier, Dana Johannsen and Duncan Johnstone could remain on the separate Stuff and NZME teams, including the Radio Sport on-air hosts. 

But other sports journalism roles at the publishers could be cut, potentially saving many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for each party.

The costs of the agency and salaries of its journalists would have to be demonstrably lower than those currently performing the commodity sports tasks. It could also sell its stories to third parties such as digital news outlets, broadcasters and independent newspapers.

An industry source said the publishers' denials that a joint effort in sport was on the cards sounded like semantics, given discussions already aired.

Sport first, what next?

The shared agency, lower cost, approach would be a model which could be extended beyond sport to other subjects for which both currently hire teams to produce similar content, such as entertainment, breaking news photography and videography and possibly even business.

Stuff’s Stevens said in reply to questions from Newsroom that, as no combined Stuff-NZME sports team was being looked at, ‘there are no other shared content or verticals to discuss.’

Sport could be at the forefront of any move towards shared editorial content in the industry because historically the sports sections in papers and online fail to attract much in the way of advertising revenue.

While live sport on Sky TV brings in the tanalised fence post and cattle drench commercials, print and digital sports is a pretty lonely place for advertisements. Many advertisers view the environment as too male, with females regarded as the main household buyers of products.

The sports editor at large of the New Zealand Herald Dylan Cleaver, told Radio New Zealand's MediaWatch programme in February sport "has an important place at the moment, but I sense... it won't play such a part for major media companies in the future." He was commenting after the Stuff regional sports redundancies.

In another change, the Australian news agency AAP closed its NZ Newswire agency last month, leaving just two of its team of 14 in place in Wellington to service Australia and international AAP clients. That agency had been formed when NZPA was collapsed but renewed pressure from the publishers for Newswire to reduce fees partly led to its demise.

Stuff and NZME already cooperate on printing newspapers with, for example, Stuff's Sunday titles and its Waikato Times having been printed by the Herald at its Ellerslie plant as an industry cost saving measure.

The companies work with broadcasters in a joint digital ad sales vehicle known as KPEX to offer a range of inventory to advertisers.

If a full business merger fails at the Court of Appeal then the companies will no doubt seek other legal ways of sharing resources and cutting costs. StuffMe Lite.

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