Jobs fears as Bath Chronicle parent group is acquired in £220m deal

October 28, 2015

Local World, the London-based owner of the Bath Chronicle, has been taken over in a £220m deal – triggering fears of “identikit newspapers” and another round of job cuts among journalists.

Local World’s acquisition by Trinity Mirror – also based in London – means the enlarged group is now the biggest regional newspaper publisher with 180 titles across the UK.

Trinity Mirror already owns the Daily and Sunday Mirror and People, plus the Birmingham Mail, Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo. As well as the Bath Chronicle, Local World’s stable includes regional morning paper the Western Daily Press, the Bristol Post and a strong of weekly titles in the region.

Trinity Mirror, which already had a 20% stake in Local World – formed three years ago by the merger of Daily Mail & General Trust’s Northcliffe Media and Iliffe News & Media – said it expected annual cost savings of up to £12m through synergies. Some £3.2m of this will come from content generation and £3.5m from management and central costs, it said.

Trinity Mirror chief executive Simon Fox called the deal a “good day for local media” – but the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) immediately said Local World employees would be seeking assurances on jobs.

Staffing levels on Local World titles, particularly in editorial departments, have been cut drastically over recent years as its newspapers haemorrhaged readers.

Last year the Bath Chronicle’s circulation fell by 8.8% to 13,141. The Western Daily Press fared slightly better, falling by 8.3%. Over the past four years its sales have declined by just under 30% – meaning its average daily sale is now below 20,000 for the first time in decades.

The Bristol Post has been hit ever harder with its circulation plummeting by an above industry average 10.9% last year to 24,165 – its lowest ever. Over the past four years it has lost more than 40% of sales.

While visitor numbers to newspaper websites have increased substantially in recent years, some publishing groups have found it difficult to use them to pull back significant levels of advertising revenue lost to online rivals during the recession.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the deal as “a further blow to media plurality”. She added: “Already there is little choice on offer in our cities and major towns when it comes to buying a local newspaper.

“Trinity Mirror’s domination will vastly reduce the little choice there is. The never-ending consolidation of the local media market is a consequence of the difficulties in increasing advertising revenue on digital products, but what is needed is a long-term vision and not short-term speculation.

“There is money to be made in local newspapers – just ask [Local World chief executive] David Montgomery. We are now in danger of having identikit newspapers across the UK. The promise of further cuts to editorial is also depressing, not just to the readers who will notice a drop in quality, but to all our members who care passionately about their work and getting out the best-possible newspaper.”

NUJ national organiser Laura Davison added: “Staff at Trinity Mirror and Local World will be looking for immediate reassurances about jobs and terms on the back of this announcement.

“Pensions and other terms downgraded when Local World was created should be upgraded now. Staff across the businesses will want to know that the company intends to invest in journalism to ensure future success and not simply adopt a narrow vision involving cuts more in the interest of shareholders than in the overall quality of the company’s products.”

Trinity Mirror will now be the publisher of 36 daily newspapers, 88 weekly paid-for newspapers, five Sunday newspapers and 43 weekly free newspapers. It will also own the franchises for eight Metros outside London, including Bristol.

It will finance the deal – which is due to complete on November 13 – mostly through debt, along with cash and a share issue, including a five-year £80m loan. Local World chief executive David Montgomery will leave the company with nearly £10m for his 5% stake. Rachel Addison, the Local World chief operating officer, will be promoted to the role of managing director, reporting to Simon Fox.

Mr Fox said: “Following the acquisition we will own more than half of the top 20 regional paid-daily titles in England and Wales and provide daily local news reach into 14 of the top 25 cities in the UK.

“It will also give us a digital network of scale, reaching 120m monthly unique browsers, helping us to leverage our digital investments and compete more effectively in this space.”

In media interviews following the announcement, Mr Fox said the  group was “absolutely not” looking to close titles but would not rule out job cuts.

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