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Nine buys Fairfax in Australian media shake-up

Fairfax, limping since classified ad revenues dried up, was a takeover target twice last year. Neither deal through

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The acquisition of Fairfax will make Nine Australia's biggest media company. Some of its shareholders are unimpressed that the broadcaster went for a print-media outfit instead of a new-world media platform.

Sydney

NEWSPAPER publisher Fairfax Media Ltd said on Thursday that it had agreed to a A$2.16 billion (S$2.18 billion) buyout from television network Nine Entertainment Co Holdings Ltd, in one of the biggest shake-ups in Australian media for decades.

The deal marks the end of an era for the 177-year-old publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review magazine; Fairfax will give up the name of its founder John Fairfax under the arrangement with the free-to-air broadcaster.

It would make Nine the biggest media company in the country, ahead of News Corp's Australian arm, although some shareholders were not impressed. The company's stock fell 10 per cent to an eight-week low after the announcement.

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Market voices on:

Ashok Desai, associate director of brokerage CPS Capital, said: "If I was a Nine shareholder, I'd probably want to see them buying something new-world."

But Patrick Potts, an investment analyst at fund manager Martin Currie Australia, which has stakes in Fairfax and Nine, said the combination of a publisher and a broadcaster "makes a lot of sense".

"Being able to sell an advertiser an audience across the day, across different channels is hopefully going to be pretty attractive to ad buyers," he said.

Fairfax shares jumped 13 per cent to trade in line with the Nine offer at a seven-year high; shares in Fairfax-controlled real-estate listings company Domain Holdings Australia Ltd also surged.

The deal comes as media incumbents around the world splash billions of dollars to buy the scale they need to rival Facebook and Google in the quest for advertising dollars.

Australia's relaxation of cross-ownership laws last year to allow easier mergers of publishers and broadcasters with overlapping metropolitan audiences is expected to unleash further rationalisation of the sort already under way in other developed media markets.

The liberalisation prompted News Corp's co-chair Lachlan Murdoch to make an offer last September for Nine rival Ten Network Holdings, before he was outbid by CBS Corp. John Hartigan, a former chief executive of News Corp Australia who is now chairman of regional TV network Prime Media Group Ltd, said Nine had achieved what News Corp had failed to pull off.

"It's the same strategic play ... If they've got scale they've got the ability to leverage different audiences to different advertisers," he said.

Fairfax has been a fixture of Australian life since it was founded by the Fairfax family in the 1840s. Magnates from Canadian-born Conrad Black to Australia's Kerry Packer and mining billionaire Gina Rinehart have held large stakes.

But it found itself cast in the role of takeover target as the enormous classified ad revenues that made it a print colossus dried up a decade ago. Last year, it drew bids from two private equity firms, TPG Capital Management and Hellman & Friedman. Neither offer progressed after Fairfax opened its books. Nine's buyout is subject to shareholder and regulatory approval. The journalists' union asked the competition regulator to reject it because it reduces diversity in one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. REUTERS