NZ First leader Winston Peters has thrown his support behind NZME buying rival news agency Stuff, saying such a deal is in the "national interest".
NZME, publisher of the NZ Herald, has sought the Government's support to buy Stuff, which is owned by Australian media company Nine.
The proposal is being considered by Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi.
Peters today threw his weight behind NZME's proposal saying it "is in the greater public interest and the national interest".
He began today's media conference by acknowledging the media and its coverage of the Whakaari/White Island disaster and flooding in the lower South Island last week, which was evidence of the importance of reporters.
"My party's fundamental position is that the role of the fourth estate is essential," Peters said, adding that the industry was in "dire straits" with advertising revenue falling, local newspapers being closed and reporter numbers falling.
"Our fourth estate is collapsing."
Social media giants 'suffocating' NZ industry
He cited social media giants such as Facebook and Google making large profits by "suffocating" New Zealand media companies.
Peters also raised the subject of NZME's fresh bid to buy rival media company Stuff from its Australian owner, and the issue of a KiwiShare idea, an undertaking to protect journalists' jobs.
"The KiwiShare proposal is worth considering," Peters said.
He had been cautious about supporting a NZME-Stuff deal which could be seen as a workaround of the Commerce Commission's decision to reject a merger, but had now been convinced to support it.
"You have to have regard to a thing called the fourth estate, and its health. You could take the attitude that it's a dog eat dog and the market will sort it out, but it's a matter so critical to our values, our sense of decency, our sense of freedom," Peters told reporters.
"Particularly in the provinces where it is the only literary lighthouse, for so many populations. These are really serious issues and we've given this a lot of considerations and made up our mind, we need to help and we need to help now."
The New Zealand First leader indicated that the media companies "will still have to follow the usual process and seek Commerce Commission approval".
But Peters made a direct plea to the regulator.
"I know how you felt the last time this matter came before you, but in the end, what you've really got to consider is, is it possible for these two entities to combine their resources and more efficiently deliver a product than to go on as competitors or in opposition in a cost structure where the costs are eating their future away," Peters said.
One of the commitments would be to keep a certain number of regional newspaper titles open, Peters said. Regional news was "as important as a hospital, as important as a school" in provincial areas.
Peters confirmed he had been lobbied directly by NZME and Nine (the owners of Stuff) and had asked "why do you think it's a good idea to come and see me?" given the treatment of NZ First.
But Peters said the NZME proposal to buy Stuff "is in the greater public interest and the national interest".
Both Faafoi and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been approached for comment.
'Maximum number of journalists': NZME chief executive
NZME chief executive Michael Boggs was at today's press conference and spoke to media after Peters' comments.
He said the KiwiShare proposal would protect journalists as a whole – but importantly journalists in the regions.
"We're really ensuring that we can have the maximum number of journalists producing the best content in the country for New Zealand."
Peters said if an NZME-Stuff deal did proceed it would be reviewed after two or three years.
Boggs said that was an "important timeframe".
"We certainly see KiwiShare as a long-term commitment and it will be regularly reviewed based on market circumstances."
Asked if it would be his intention to keep two national Sunday newspapers, Boggs said he had not yet gone through that specific level of detail.
"We have put a proposal to the Government, and we will wait to see what they say."
Boggs said NZME has been clear that it thought the company had the opportunity to continue to invest in journalism for the future of the company.
If a merger between NZME and Stuff did occur, it was his intention to keep both the NZ Herald and Stuff websites.
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Boggs said he had been briefed on the fact that Peters was making some announcements regarding the media. He had not, however, been briefed on the specifics of what the announcement would be.
Asked if the next step would be to talk to Faafoi about the proposed merger, Boggs said: "I look forward to hearing if the Minister would like to update us further".
Attempts to merge media companies
The attempts of the two companies, New Zealand's largest media companies NZME and Stuff, have been under way for several years.
In May 2017 the Commerce Commission declined to allow the two companies to merge, because it was "not satisfied that the merger will not have, or would not be likely to have, the effect of substantially lessening competition in a market".
The commission added that it was not satisfied that the proposed merger would provide benefits such that it should be allowed, and questioned the claims of the two companies about the likely impacts if the merger was declined.
The companies appealed the decision, but both the High Court and the Court of Appeal upheld the commission's decision last year.
Peters said today that the Government would be asking the Commerce Commission if there was a way to allow the two companies to merge, given the likely job losses. The decision would still be for the Commerce Commission to make.
The KiwiShare arrangement, which would provide a commitment for keeping certain newspapers open, would last for several years, Peters said.
That should be enough time for the media landscape to stabilise, Peters said.
Several of NZME's top management including chairman Peter Cullinane, Boggs and managing editor Shayne Currie attended today's press conference, sitting with NZ First MPs.
Peters has defended using the term "fake news" given his stance today, saying the party had been subject to a number of "baseless allegations" in recent months.
The media's credibility was being diluted as PR people providing political commentary were given the same standing as political editors, Peters said.
"Our reporters are underpaid and overloaded" with the current state creating a focus on "breaking news, not thinking news".
"As one who has experienced the ravages of journalism, sometimes you have to accept criticism goes with the territory."
NZ First supported moves to strengthen New Zealand's media, Peters said.