DMGT's U-turn over Northcliffe sale

Alison Hastings

NORTHCLIFFE’S NEWSPAPERS have been revealing shocking twists and turns in major stories for many decades — so it is apt, perhaps, that they have recently been involved in one of the more intriguing newspaper sagas themselves.

The Daily Mail’s regional newspaper stable astounded the industry late last year when it announced that parent company DMGT (Daily Mail and General Trust) had put it up for sale. Now Northcliffe has hit the headlines again and revealed that it is staying in the family. So who are the winners and losers in this episode?

The majority of the staff are undoubtedly relieved that they are to remain within Lord Rothermere’s empire. Northcliffe has long enjoyed a reputation for being a good regional newspaper group to work for, with comparatively well-stocked newsrooms and an ethos of editorial independence.

They have also not had to provide the return on sale figures to date demanded by the City from rivals Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.

So unsurprisingly, staff were celebrating last Friday morning when the news hit their screens — and nowhere more so than in the regional head office and the electronic publishing department, which would surely have felt the cold chill of a new owner sooner than most.

Others celebrating might well have been the Newspaper Society, who were loathe to see a well-established and wellrun group disappear and be replaced by who knows what.

The fact that Northcliffe are big financial backers of the NS, and play an influential part on many working parties, committees and conferences would not have gone unnoticed.

Losers may be the other rival newspaper groups, who would have eyed-up parts of the empire and worked out the fit geographically with their own set-up.

Consolidation is still the key for these boys and they know that they could have squeezed value from certain Northcliffe centres by incorporating them into their own business.

But at the end of the day the private equity groups who have pored over the books with their due diligence were not prepared to pay top dollar.

Once the bidding came in at £1.2 billion, as opposed to the £1.3bn to £1.5bn range that had been expected, it became a no-brainer for DMGT.

If it can maintain the group’s profits (which look set to be large if the current climate continues) it could recoup that money itself in 10 to 12 years — and still have all the assets.

It certainly helps that Northcliffe’s "Aim Higher" programme of amalgamating departments and cutting costs is on track to deliver the bottom line the company wants to see.

The programme, dubbed "Aim Fire" by worried staff and unions across the regional centres, will become even more crucial when it comes to reassuring DMGT’s board that they have made the right decision in turning the offers down.

It has been an interesting time for DMGT’s finance director Peter Williams and chief executive Charles Sinclair. They have had to choose their words carefully all along.

First they had to explain the shock decision to sell without putting people off wanting to buy the group and invest in the regional press, and now they must come up with a convincing reason why canny investors, who have seen their books and up-to-the-minute projections, were not prepared to pay the initial asking price.

And what will now be the state of mind of the staff once the initial euphoria has worn off? DMGT is the parent company, and for Northcliffe employees it was a bit like being told by your mum and dad that they don’t want you anymore and are putting you up for adoption to the highest bidder.

Then they announce that they do love you after all and are going to hang on to you — but only, you discover, because noone was prepared to pay enough for you.

This may not make you feel truly secure in the family unit — you may, at least initially, be continually looking for signs that you have fallen out of favour again. And possibly — with Aim Higher being rolled out around the group — you will feel you have to be on your very best behaviour… APOLOGY OF THE MONTH goes to the one which appeared in Zoo magazine recently (is it just me or has this magazine developed into more or less a succession of bare breasts?). I must admit to having some prior knowledge of the apology as a friend in a local authority press office took it upon themselves to point out a relatively minor mistake to the magazine.

Zoo had referred to some council workers involved in a court case as coming from this friend’s authority, when in fact it was a neighbouring one. After being less than reassured by a Zoo employee remarking "no-one believes anything we write is actually true" he thought he would still help them avoid a huge libel payout by mentioning in passing that the court case had, in fact, been on-going when they wrote about it, and that one of the accused had subsequently been cleared.

Presumably this made their legal department prick up their ears and take more notice as the following apology has now appeared… "In Thick Britain we reported that… David Welsh had been rumbled using a council’s CCTV camera to spy on a local woman’s home. We should have said the trial was still continuing.

After we went to press, the jury threw out all charges against David Welsh, accepting that he had not looked at the footage or abused the public’s trust. Mr Welsh is clearly therefore neither a pervert nor stupid… "

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