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Johnston Press belt-tightening puts squeeze on Northern Ireland weeklies

By Paul Connolly

Published 29/01/2016

Presses roll: But for how long?
Presses roll: But for how long?

There are rumblings of a shake-up within Johnston Press, which owns several newspapers in Northern Ireland including the News Letter.

Several local weekly titles here have been branded "sub core" by the Edinburgh-based publisher - meaning they are in line for a radical overhaul. Equally, or perhaps more likely, they could be sold. Hopefully there will be no closures.

The development was revealed by trade title Press Gazette, based on an email sent by JP bosses to staff.

Stock Exchange-listed Johnston is the owner of a suite of around 250 newspapers in Northern Ireland, Britain and the Isle of Man and is the second-largest publisher of local newspapers in the UK.

W&AK Johnston Limited was founded in 1826 and bought control of its first newspaper, the Falkirk Herald (which it still owns), in 1846.

The company bought newspaper groups in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties and by 2002 was a significant player in the UK regional market. It then embarked on what, with the benefit of post-crash hindsight, was an ill-fated expansion into Ireland.

In 2005 it purchased Local Press Ltd, which included the former Trinity Mirror-owned Derry Journal and News Letter groups, for £165m, and the newspaper assets of Scottish Radio Holdings (45 titles in Scotland and Ireland) for £155m.

It also bought the Leinster Leader Group for €138m (before going on to buy The Scotsman Publications a year later).

The Irish titles - which included many that were originally Morton Newspapers titles - were reorganised into three holding companies: Johnston Publishing NI, Derry Journal Newspapers and Johnston Press Ireland.

Although Johnston Press Ireland was later sold off, there was precious little interest in any of the Irish titles when JP tried to offload them. All in, JP spent more then £300m on newspapers in Ireland, at the peak of the market, which ended up being worth just a fraction of their purchase price.

Common with many newspapers, there has been much rationalisation and restructuring since, but it now looks like further changes are on the cards.

According to Press Gazette, staff have been informed which newspapers are considered of "uber" importance, "primary", "core" and "sub-core".

Included in 59 "sub-core" titles are the Londonderry Sentinel; Carrick Gazette; Ballymena Times; Ballymoney Times; Banbridge Leader, Belfast Vibe and Tyrone Times.

The following titles have all been designated "core": Larne Times; Portadown Times; Derry Journal; Lurgan Mail, Mid-Ulster Mail and Ulster Star.

There are no NI newspapers in the "primary" group. The News Letter is part of the important "uber" category, which I'm guessing means it is a) profitable and b) a successful content provider to the larger JP group.

Johnston wants to sell some newspapers but has said inclusion in the "sub-core" group does not automatically mean that a newspaper will be up for sale. The company will seek to "establish new innovative models to enable us to improve the levels of return from this group".

This, to me, is corporate-speak for pagination reductions, less frequent publication, a switch to digital-only publishing or some combination of all three

But there is a strong likelihood that these newspapers will go for sale, if only to see if buyers exist. Closures couldn't be ruled out either, which would not just hit jobs but deprive communities in Derry, Carrick, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge and Tyrone with key local voices.

Whatever ends up happening, it looks like significant change is imminent.

Belfast Telegraph

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