By Hamish Mackay, former news editor, The Press and Journal
Dundee-based publishing giant DC Thomson took the media industry by surprise with its £132m swoop this week on Aberdeen Journals Ltd — one of the UK’s most profitable regional newspaper centres.
Also caught on the hop was acquisition- hungry regional newspaper group Johnston Press, which had seemed odds-on favourite to add the Aberdeen titles to its recent £160m purchase of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News. The Aberdeen newspapers would have made a perfect fit and recreated the former Thomson Regional Newspapers set-up in Scotland.
However, it was the cash-rich and secretive DC Thomson empire, whose titles include The Sunday Post, Dundee Courier and Advertiser and Dundee Evening Telegraph, that quietly went about its business to snap up The Press and Journal, Aberdeen Evening Express, free-ads paper Scot-Ads and the free distribution weekly Aberdeen Citizen.
DC Thomson paid DMGT £105m in cash and a further £27m into its pension fund. The deal allows DMGT to buy back at least £50m of its shares.
Andrew Thomson, chairman of family-owned DC Thomson, immediately pledged that it would not interfere in the local running of its new newspapers or their "long and enviable"
history of campaigning.
Thomson said: "The content and editorial policy of The Press and Journal and the Evening Express will continue to be set by the people who know its area best — and they are based in Aberdeen."
Thanks to the North Sea energy industry, the Aberdeen titles have been a cash cow for a succession of owners, including the former Kemsley group and Thomson Regional Newspapers, and has been the best-performing part of DMGT’s Northcliffe Newspapers regional arm.
In the latest financial full year, ended October 2005, Aberdeen Journals notched up an operating profit before interest and tax of £8.1m on turnover of £38.2m.
The sale has been welcomed by staff, the NUJ, advertisers, the distribution trade and politicians in north and northeast Scotland.
Alan Scott, managing director of Aberdeen Journals, said: "This sale ensures that our newspapers continue to enjoy the independence that they had under Northcliffe.
"DC Thomson has a long tradition in the publishing industry in Scotland, and, like ourselves, is committed to producing quality local newspapers."
NUJ Scottish organiser Paul Holleran said: "We welcome the fact the new owners say they won’t interfere editorially with the Aberdeen titles, but we will be seeking assurance over jobs at the newspapers.
"They are a paternalistic company.
Everyone else has gone down, but they have not deteriorated."
DC Thomson, which also publishes the UK’s best-selling comics The Beano and The Dandy, has always been an anti-union company, although it is said to look after its 2,000 employees, offering mortgage assistance, a quality pension scheme and job security.
The Press and Journal is currently selling about 85,000 copies a day and is Britain’s biggest regional morning.
The Dundee Courier sells 78,000 copies daily.
Aberdeen Journals, which has approximately 550 employees, has been part of DMGT’s stable since it was acquired from the Thomson Corporation of Canada for £82m in 1995.