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Merger of publishers Dnevnik and Večer cleared (adds)

Ljubljana/Maribor, 29 July (STA) - The Competition Protection Agency (AVK) has given a nod to the merger of Dnevnik and Večer, the publishers of the second and third largest daily newspapers in the country, respectively.

The AVK said on Monday it had established that the merger was in line with the competition rules. The content of the decision is yet to be published, while the managements of both publishers have already received it.

The clearance was first reported by the public broadcaster Radio Slovenija, which said the joint company would have a 40% share on the printed media market, which is believed to have been the reason why the deliberations of the AVK on the case took a whole year.

The approval of the Culture Ministry was already issued last December.

Maribor-based Večer, controlled by the no. 1 publisher Delo until 2014 when it was sold to entrepreneurs Uroš Hakl and Sašo Todorovič due to anti-trust concerns, has a circulation of about 19,000, while Dnevnik, owned by Bojan Petan of publisher DZS, one of 21,000.

According to some estimates, labour cost rationalisation alone will save the companies EUR 2 million. The two papers each generated around EUR 1.5 million in net profit last year.

Večer and Dnevnik are meant to continue being published as separate papers. Forces are expected to be joined when it comes to covering foreign and internal affairs as well as sports, while regional topics are to be covered separately.

Večer has traditionally had a strong subscriber base in the north-east of the country, while Dnevnik is perceived more as a central Slovenian or Ljubljana-based paper.

At least partial mergers are also expected for the subscriptions, marketing and administration department.

More about the plans and expected lay-offs will be clear once the owners comment on the AVK's decision, which has not yet been published officially.

Večer director Uroš Hakl and Dnevnik chairman Bojan Petan welcomed the decision by the AVK, labelling it as a "move which both companies perceive as necessary considering the aggravated situation on the printed media market."

Dnevnik editor-in-chief Miran Lesjak said that the merger "is certainly one of the most important decisions in the history of both newspapers."

According to Lesjak, the decision was made so that the newspapers survive. "We live in times when newspapers...which bet on quality of information, professionalism and their own credibility fight for survival," he added.

Igor Dernovšek, the president of Dnevnik journalists' trade union, told the STA that the decision was expected, adding that the trade union was assured that for now, there would be no lay-offs or pay cuts.

The Slovenian Journalists' Association (DNS) responded to the news by urging that both papers preserve their level of quality and professionalism, their separate brands, content plurality, as well as jobs.

The DNS expressed concern over the owners' limited sharing of information regarding their plans and consequences of the merger. It urged transparency, the inclusion of journalists in future steps and against only pursuing a strategy of survival and synergies, arguing this could prove fatal eventually.

"The owners must not only look at their economic interest but also at public interest - this means quality, in-depth and investigative reporting in what is in fact an increasingly barren Slovenian media landscape.

"Both of these media outlets are among the pillars of quality journalism in Slovenia, each a backbone of public opinion in their environment. Shaking them up would have irreparable consequences for the entire media and democratic environment," the DNS wrote.

The association moreover pointed out that it had launched an ongoing administrative dispute over being excluded from the Culture Ministry's deliberations on the merger.

The Association of Journalists and Commentators (ZNP) assessed that the merger will not change the balance of power on the Slovenian media market, and that it would not have a significant impact from the aspect of media plurality.

"Considering that both newspapers are...distinctively leaning to the left, their merger will not bring anything significantly new from the aspect of media plurality," said ZNP president Matevž Tomšič, who does not expect any major changes content-wise, either.

"Večer is a more regionally-oriented newspaper, which could hurt its image," he said, adding that the merger will render certain journalists and other media workers in both newspapers redundant and that they would be fired.

In addition to the DNS, the perils of the development have also been highlighted by media expert Marko Milosavljević, who particularly warned against the merging of the two paper's internal policy desks.

"This aspect definitely cuts deep into public interest and the plurality of the media landscape," Milosavljević told the STA, warning this could result in "a single person having control over reports in two key national papers".

He argued watchdogs too often only considered the economic side of things and forgot about the intellectual aspect. "This intellectual market often shrinks as a result of media mergers," the Ljubljana Faculty of Social Sciences professor said.

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