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A year since the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission allowed Perth’s newspapers to merge, circulation at both papers are up.

In September last year, the competition regulator announced it wouldn’t oppose The West Australian buying out News Corp’s Sunday Times, leaving Seven West Media as the only newspaper proprietor in Perth. The ACCC said there would be fewer voices in the media for consumers, but, on balance, there wouldn’t be significantly less competition for consumers or advertisers.

But while News Corp has shed its Western Australian outlets, The West has been looking more and more like the daily papers the Murdoch company owns in every other state.

Under the sale agreement, there is a copy sharing deal under which The West can use News Corp news and opinion content. So Perth readers now get the treat of News Corp columnists Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, David Penberthy and Peter van Onselen, as well as news from News Corp reporters, every day.

The infiltration of News Corp into the everyday newspaper of Western Australians might irk some readers, for the most part they’ve embraced the change.

Curtin University journalism department head Joseph Fernandez says that looking at recent circulation figures for both papers, the content-sharing deal seems to have been a good move.

“The content sharing with News Corp appears to have worked, or at the very least has not harmed these newspapers’ circulation and readership figures. As to whether there is room for more diversity of coverage, I favour more players in the market. Competition keeps everyone on their toes, and media platforms are no exception. A healthy democracy needs a vibrant media that facilitates the plurality of views.”

[How the west was monopolised]

The West’s print sales rose Monday to Friday by 7.5% for the six months to June, compared to the previous audit period, and the Sunday Times was the only Sunday newspaper in Australia to increase its circulation during the same period. Fernandez told Crikey the figures were a good sign: “Such figures, coming at a time of doom and gloom in the journalism industry, are most welcome. I hope this trend will continue and that readers and advertisers will continue to strongly support the growth of the industry.

“I hope that the news media generally is able to return to the pink of health because there has been no let up in the need for people to be well-informed about news and current affairs to enable them to make informed decisions.”

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance WA regional director Tiffany Venning said that even though there was more content from the east appearing in the paper, and regular Bolt columns and less regular opinion coming through from other News Corp columnists, the editorial direction of The West hadn’t really changed.

The West still loves its sharks, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily made much of a difference,” she told Crikey. “Apart from the Bolt and Devine columns appearing, I don’t consider it’s changed its direction in any meaningful or obvious way.”

Venning said the merger was the lesser of two evils in a challenging media market, recalling The West’s attempt to buy Perth’s Daily News in 1990. That deal was rejected by the ACCC, and the Daily News closed.

“It was a bit of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation,” she said.

And staff cuts beyond the initial redundancies haven’t eventuated, so far.

“We were worried they might only take a dozen or so folks over from the Sunday Times, but they took almost 30,” Vennings said. “And they were advertising for folk a couple of weeks ago … so they seem to be doing something right.”

The newspapers and Seven share an office building, which Venning thinks is what we can expect more newsrooms to look like in the future — and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Younger print journalists have a chance to learn the ropes of video journalism, and other opportunities they might not otherwise have had.

“For every pro, you’d find a con,” she said.

In its annual report released in August, Seven West Media said the acquisition had had a “positive contribution” to earnings before tax and amortisation, but The West‘s revenue declined by 4.8%.

Peter Fray

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