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It has come to this. With its back against the wall, the UK local news publishing sector is finally trying to consolidate in a big way.
Three publishers – DMGT, Trinity Mirror and Iliffe News & Media – are in talks to pool their local news assets in to a vehicle called Local World.
This weekend, The Times reported: “David Montgomery, the former Mirror Group chief executive, is understood to be in talks to acquire Northcliffe Media from DMGT for almost £100 million with a view to merging it with Iliffe News & Media.”
Such a tie-up could combine the number one, four and 11 publishers in UK regional news, allowing them to save further costs by combining many functions.
Trinity Mirror’s involvement is interesting since new CEO Simon Fox only this month declared he will merge the company’s distinct national and regional units.
The local and regional news industry has been ravaged in recent years by an ad downturn more pronounced than even national level and by audiences’ digital migration. The industry has responded with waves of downsizing and, in some places, lacklustre digital product development.
Another regional publisher, Johnston Press, has lately been forming a coherent vision for local news in the digital era despite being heavily debt-laden – confidence in locality and an ambition to aggregate its local news operations in to national themed web brands.
If Local World adopted a similar template, it could prove an interesting proposition.
But this deal could face significant regulatory hurdles. Several small newspapers have changed hands over the last year as publishers have adjusted their portfolios – but even a small deal, like that in which local publisher KM Group tried to buy seven of Northcliffe’s titles – was blocked by the Competition Commission.
For instance, uniting Northcliffe (South West Wales Publications including South Wales Evening Post) with Trinity Mirror regionals (The Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Celtic Weeklies) would give Local World near exclusive lock-up on south Wales readers.
Newspaper watcher Roy Greenslade calls Montgomery “a consistent cold-blooded cost-cutter”, observing: “If Local World gets off the ground, I think this could well be a major turning point for the whole industry.”